In 1821, merchant, magistrate and property owner Edward Wollstonecraft received the last of the large North Sydney grants given away before 1831, when the colonial Governors stopped dispensing ‘free’ land to those deemed worthy and productive.
His estate comprised 524 acres of coastal woodland and heath, sandstone closed forest and Blue Gum high forest in what today are the suburbs of North Sydney, Wollstonecraft, Waverton and Crows Nest.
Far away from the harbour and the townsfolk he apparently disliked, Wollstonecraft built a cottage called ‘Crows Nest’ and planted a garden and orchard in which he developed a ‘delicious’ variety of nectarine called ‘Wollstonecraft’s Colonel Lindesay’ (Sydney Monitor, 11 May 1831).
Wollstonecraft died in 1832 and his estate passed to his sister Elizabeth Berry and then, upon her death in 1845, to her husband Alexander. In 1838, the township of St Leonards was officially gazetted and those with large parcels of land nearby began thinking of subdivision. Alexander Berry did so in 1853, releasing 41 allotments in the area around Edward, Miller and West streets. It might not have been the best time to sell, for the population north of the harbour was declining in the wake of the discovery of gold in 1851. Interestingly the sales notice made a virtue of the fact that the land was still ‘well timbered’ – not so much because the wood could be used for construction, but that it could be burnt as fuel.
After Alexander’s death in 1871, more land was released on what was then known simply as the ‘Berry Estate’. Dozens of blocks were sold in the 1880s around Chandos and Atchison Streets, in what would be called the suburbs of Crows Nest and St Leonards. The houses that were built over the following decade were late Victorian in style with the filigree iron work characteristic of Sydney’s terrace houses. Some blocks remained empty for years, possibly as a result of the 1890s Depression. Houses that were built after the turn of the new century were very different, displaying the unrendered red brick fronts and terracotta roofs typical of Federation-era homes. When the streets were finally filled, the houses were small and densely packed. Crows Nest was generally a suburb of skilled workers and lower middle class clerks.
The largest and most prestigious blocks were subdivided to the west; firstly in what would be Waverton around the new train station on Bay Road, completed in 1893; and then further north in what would be called Wollstonecraft along Edwards Road, renamed Shirley Road. This part of the estate was to be a place ‘select and wholesome in every particular’. It was here also that large English Revival / Federation–era villas and bungalows were erected in grounds often substantial enough to accommodate tennis courts and stables. The architect Donald Esplin built several homes here and the trustees of the estate ensured that exclusivity was maintained by imposing convenants and enlisting the services of Howard Joseland, Walter Liberty Vernon’s former partner, to oversee plans. Noxious trades, such as tanneries and blacksmiths, were forbidden.
The last subdivisions occurred progressively around grand 'Crows Nest House' that Alexander had built for himself in the 1850s and that, by the 1920s, was occupied by the elderly Lady Hay, wife of Sir John Hay who had inherited the estate as a cousin of the Berry family. From the 1920s to 1933 the large fenced garden that served as Alexander’s buffer from the encroaching town was cut up in various releases of the ‘Lady Hay Estate’ and the ‘Crows Nest House Estate’. Berry’s prized Bunya Pines were felled to make way for McHatton Street, the new road that gave access to new houses. The owners of No.1 McHatton Street opted for a huge villa in the glamorous Inter-War Mediterranean style while those at No.5 preferred the traditional ‘Inter-War Old English’, the successor to the English Revival of the previous decades. Rupert Minnett received at least two commissions in this part of the estate.
Finally, in 1933, ‘Crows Nest House’ itself was demolished and the site covered with tar as part of the extension of Crows Nest Road to the Pacific Highway. This road was quickly lined with new large homes. Berry’s original iron gates and a substantial section of iron and stone fencing survive as part of North Sydney Demonstration School.
While the old Berry Estate had effectively ceased to exist with the destruction of ‘Crows Nest House’, that was not the end of change. In the 1960s the large gardens of Wollstonecraft and Waverton provided developers with the perfect sites for new medium and high density flats. It was hoped that the building covenant would forestall flat development. However, its legality was successfully challenged. Dozens of large and beautiful homes were demolished and the character of the suburbs was dramatically altered. These lost houses added to the impetus for local Resident Action and the rise of heritage consciousness.