Houseboats have been a feature at Pearl Bay, The Spit, since the early 1900s. The earliest of them were owned by the wealthy who could afford to convert assorted craft into comfortable weekenders. Jeweller Percy Marks used his as a fishing retreat, and solicitor G.F. Williamson entertained the likes of Nellie Melba on his. A houseboat advertised for sale at Pearl Bay in 1909 had “5 rooms, lavatory, stove, water tanks, cedar boat, partitions that can be moved to make rooms smaller or larger. Price £160.” (SMH 30/1/1909).
Most had had previous lives as punts, barges, lighters, tugboats, also a Hawkesbury paddle wheeler, before conversion for residential use. Even one of The Spit punts was converted to a houseboat c1910. Their sizes varied enormously from bed- sitters to monsters over 20 metres in length.
During the 1920s and early 30s houseboat numbers grew, some being used by fishermen, and during the Depression by the unemployed. As the times improved in the late 1930s, Mosman found itself with a legacy of houseboats, some in poor condition, and causing annoyance to local residents. The Maritime Services Board (MSB) advised Council in March 1938 that there were 9 registered houseboats at Pearl Bay. Numbers dropped over the years as some sank or burnt down, moved away or failed to meet licensing standards. Some craft were abandoned and left to rot on the mudflats. In late 1938, licensing of houseboats became stricter. Each vessel must be examined annually by a licensed marine surveyor, and only passed if the vessel was stout, stable, in good condition, in a state of cleanliness and properly equipped for purpose.
Nevertheless they remained a problem for Mosman. During the 1930s, 40s and 50s Mosman Council minutes repeatedly refer to the issue, citing correspondence from Beauty Point residents who regarded them as an eyesore. In an attempt to rid the area of the houseboats, Council requested the MSB not to issue or renew any more licences for Pearl Bay. The MSB indicated in 1941 that houseboats already there would not be removed, but no more would be allowed to moor in the vicinity. By the mid to late 1940s, post war housing shortages saw the demand for houseboats increase again, so the problem persisted. Pollution from houseboats was an issue, and from 1954 the MSB ruled that for renewal of a license, the applicant must produce evidence that they had made suitable arrangements with the local council for the removal or disposal of garbage.
In March 1953 the MSB reported on the 9 houseboats then at Pearl Bay. Of these, 5 were seaworthy and at a mooring, 2 were unseaworthy and beached on the foreshore, one had been demolished and the remains left by the shore, and one was under repair. The hulls of several other craft were abandoned near the reserve. There was some disagreement between Council and the MSB about whose job it was to remove those wrecks, but MSB took responsibility only for those vessels on their allotted moorings, well beyond the low water mark, and which must be afloat at all tides.
Owners referred to their craft as “houses”, not boats. They had bedrooms and kitchens, not cabins and galleys. Many had children, pets, rooftop gardens, and all had endless supplies of fish. Journalist Blanche d’Alpuget (Snr) spent 3 months living on a houseboat at Pearl Bay, and wrote of her experience (SMH 13/2/1937). Despite the tranquillity and solitude it was only 35 minutes to Wynyard, and “the dinghy takes me to shore, and a five minute bushwalk to The Spit, where one can get all modern requirements for the larder”. A twopenny tram ride took her to Spit Junction. Her houseboat was large and well furnished, with “a kitchen equipped with every convenience except a modern stove”. However a primus and French oil stove served her well. Lighting was provided by nickel Miller kerosene lamps. Water supply depended on rainfall, but the bath could be filled with salt water if required. “The garbage collector does not call. All refuse goes overboard”. A boat-doctor assisted with repairs or problems, and helped with the dinghy in choppy weather. A neighbouring houseboat was an old tug turned into a luxurious home, with a generator to provide electricity. Many had all the furnishings and amenities of a house, with kerosene or petrol powered appliances.
Houseboat living had its drawbacks however. Being moored offshore, residents must fetch and carry everything by boat. Water cans could be filled from a standpipe on shore. At least one and often two dinghies were required so everyone could get to and from shore when needed. Motors were not allowed so houseboats had to be towed if being moved, and they were most uncomfortable during rough weather. However for many, the benefits outweighed the inconveniences. Houseboat living in 1946 was cheap. An annual license cost £1, with 10/- for moorings, and a guinea for a surveyor’s certificate. Once a year it had to be taken out of the water to have the hull cleaned, which cost a few pounds, and at which time the marine surveyor did the annual inspection. No lawns to mow, just bilges to pump. And no rates! (SMH 5/11/1946).
Since the 1920s Mosman Council had been making improvements at the Spit, gradually forming a reserve on the western side. By 1969 a seawall along Pearl Bay was almost complete, providing permanent deep water up to the shoreline, instead of mudflats. This enabled houseboats to moor at the shore, rather than out in the bay, with gangplanks direct to the land. It also provided access to shore based services such as water, sewerage, phone, electricity and garbage collection. While previously houseboats were under the complete control of the MSB, now Mosman Council had some influence, and as a result began charging rates! They were no longer such a cheap accommodation option, and a new type of owner moved in. Prices reached the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Over the following years Pearl Bay residents included David Hill, Ian Kiernan, John Singleton and Maggie Eckhart. Singleton owned two houseboats at different times. The second one, during an overcrowded farewell party in 1990, capsized and sank. Sold, raised and restored, it now remains the last one in the Bay. It was also one of the first, built on an old Spit punt around 1910.
Since the 1930s Mosman Council had unsuccessfully appealed to the MSB to ban houseboats from Pearl Bay. A 2010 Spit Reserves Plan of Management proposed that the 3 remaining houseboats be phased out at the end of their leases. However a number of submissions objected to this plan, arguing that “the houseboats are a part of the rich cultural heritage of Pearl Bay” and should be retained. Subsequently NSW Maritime issued new 20 year leases for these 3 houseboats. Unfortunately, in 2017, one of them sank, was raised then sank again so, being unseaworthy, was removed. Another, the little Tanderra, was the subject of ongoing dispute with Council, receiving much publicity. Several attempts to auction it were thwarted and it became increasingly dilapidated and unsafe, to a on 10 February point where, in early 2020, access was withdrawn. Shortly after, it disappeared, fate unknown, leaving now only one houseboat at Pearl Bay.
P. Morris, Mosman Historical Society. References available on request.