The picnic and pleasure ground known as Athol Gardens, near the Zoo at Athol Bight, was originally a grant of 4 acres made to Joseph Kay in 1831, then passing to Alexander Ferrier in 1836. Ferrier erected two houses on the property, a garden cottage for his family, and a substantial villa named Athol. When advertised for rent in 1845, the villa was described as “consisting of dining and drawing rooms, four bed-rooms, detached kitchen with oven, laundry and rooms above, also extensive garden” (SMH 27/2/1845). Later, servants’ rooms, outbuildings, kitchen garden, orchard and paddocks were added.
There was a steady turnover of tenants during the 1850s and 60s, probably due to its isolated position on the north shore. In the early 1860s it was reported as being used as a hotel, the unlicensed Athol Arms where, being outside the city, drinking was permitted on Sundays. Boxing and cockfighting also provided entertainment. In 1864 the lease was taken over by C.F. Hemington, who advertised that he would run the “beautiful mansion of Athol” as a pleasure ground. Steamers from Circular Quay would transport visitors across the harbour to be landed at a primitive wharf below the property, from where a steep path led up to the Athol Arms inn. From these beginnings, for over 50 years it was one of Sydney’s most popular recreation grounds.
In 1866 William Clark, who conducted a dancing academy in Elizabeth Street, took over the property and in 1872 was granted a publican’s licence, changing the name to Athol Gardens. Extensions were made and a dancing pavilion built. A visitor at the time described the hotel as being “pretty good”... with ”a well furnished large parlour, also a dining and sitting room with a piano much out of tune. Liquors very good but twice Sydney prices”. He described two dancing saloons with sloping shingled roofs and open sides for ventilation. The hotel was plastered and painted white, with a small house of square stone blocks at the rear. The “gardens” consisted of a variety of fruit trees, with wildflowers and native roses in the adjacent bushland.
By 1880 the hotel had been renovated and refurbished. A fine new pavilion for dancing was a drawcard for visitors, and was also used as a luncheon rendezvous for the crews of yachts following weekend races to Athol. At Easter 1880 advertisements in the Sydney Morning Herald promoted a
special family picnic event, with “grand preparations for this great holiday”. There would be a band for dancing in the pavilion, another on the lawn, with sports and amusements all day. Mrs Clark would supply the best brands of wine, beer etc, with light refreshments and meals available – “a good dinner for 1/-“. Later that year the premises changed hands yet again, the licence being taken over by J.T. Coffill but under the supervision of Mrs Bates.
Unfortunately around this time such dancing establishments were gaining a reputation as places of rowdy and scandalous behaviour, resulting in stricter licensing conditions. Athol Gardens Hotel did not meet the standards required of new licensing laws introduced in 1881, which prevented Sunday trading and also controlled dancing and music. As a result it ceased to be a licensed premises, being renamed the Athol Temperance Hotel, with all intoxicating liquors and also dancing banned from the grounds.
Nevertheless on New Year’s Day 1883 there were 3000 visitors, the Herald reporting that “the temperance grounds at Athol were conspicuous for the order and good conduct maintained there” unlike other places where dancing and alcohol were still permitted. Later that decade dancing returned to the pavilion, but seemingly only during group picnics organised by such as the Hibernian Society and Shamrock Club. By the 1890s press reports show that dancing was again a feature of functions held at Athol Gardens by many clubs, work organisations and holiday makers.
Athol continued as one of the most popular picnic grounds around Sydney Harbour, especially on holidays, with extra ferries employed to transport the many visitors. In 1906 it was purchased from the Ferrier family by Sydney Ferries Ltd. Over the next five years this company made improvements such as the construction of new pathways and the erection of a new pavilion in 1908, the last of many on the site. This pavilion remains, now known as Athol Hall, the only reminder of Athol Gardens in its heyday. It seems that around this time the other structures, the hotel, garden cottage, earlier dance pavilions and various picnic shelters, still visible in a photo taken by Sydney Ferries in 1906, were demolished. Just some stone foundations behind Athol Hall and an outhouse remain.
Sydney Ferries Ltd. sold the site in 1911 to the Taronga Park trustees, and during this time the surrounding bushland, military reserve and animal quarantine station were resumed for incorporation into Ashton Park. Though Athol Gardens continued as a popular picnic ground, after the opening of the Zoo and its new wharf in 1916, the focus of visitors moved in that direction. The area was used by Zoo visitors for picnics, and the pavilion as a tearoom and kiosk, and was still being advertised as an ideal picnic spot in the early 1950s. The pavilion gradually fell into disrepair, but after being incorporated into the Sydney Harbour National Park in 1975, was restored and is now used as the Athol Hall cafe and function centre, on Bradleys Head Road.
By P. Morris, Mosman Historical Society
SOUTER, Gavin. Mosman: a history. Melb, UP, 1994
STURROCK, Rob. Pictorial history of Mosman, vol.1. Netley, Griffin Press, 
Articles from TROVE newspaper database
Image: Athol Gardens c1871 by G.B.Mason antiqueprinroom.com