An unholy row has erupted in a NSW seaside town over a planned tourism development on the site of an old disused church and its grounds – which may hold the grave of a former Aboriginal king.
The proposal is for a conference hotel, serviced apartments and a backpackers’ hostel along with retail and parklands in the tourist hotspot of Huskisson on the NSW south coast, on the shores of popular Jervis Bay.
After an outcry split the town over the intended demolition of the 1931 church, designed by well-known architect Cyril Blackett who exhibited at the Art Society of NSW in Sydney in 1883, the developer agreed it could be saved, and relocated nearby on the same site.
But a proposal is now going before The Heritage Council of NSW on November 7 to decide whether the Holy Trinity Family Church should be heritage-listed and kept in its present position.
“The church is definitely worth preserving and the trees around it were planted by local parishioners on the second anniversary of its consecration in 1936, so they are important and should stay too,” said local historian Shirley Fitzgerald, who’s helped organise a petition of 2000 signatures in support.
“In addition, most of the graves on the site are unknown, and we don’t know how many more there might be. In addition, we’ve found an old newspaper report that King Billy, the big Jervis Bay indigenous leader, was buried in the grounds. So everyone is very angry about these plans and the local Aboriginal community are on board too.”
But Turnkey Projects developer Steve Bartlett, the owner of the local Husky Pub who’s behind the scheme, has hired Sydney architect Philip Thalis of Hill Thalis to draw up a masterplan for the site, fencing off the area of the known graves, and moving the church, and repurposing it.
He’s adamant there are no “pre-white settlement” Aboriginal graves there and also has a local archaeologist studying the areas. “It’s nonsense to suggest I’m going to dig up graves of Aboriginal people,” he said.
“And the church hasn’t been used since 2015 as it’s too small and the church authorities are building a new one two kilometres away with a community centre and a minister’s residence. The existing church I don’t see as state significant at all.
“The area needs commercial development as there are only 90 rooms in town and only campgrounds at Jervis Bay, and we need more jobs and tourists and business.”
Huskisson, 190 kilometres south of Sydney is a favourite holiday and weekend spot, with tourist attracted especially to its resident bottlenose dolphins, fur seals and little penguin populations. Between May and November, many visit the area to see the annual whale migration.
The church and its grounds are another important attraction, believes Maureen Webb, who’s also part of the Save Husky Church group. The Shoalhaven City Council recently voted not to put the church on its own heritage register.
“But the church is beautiful and Cyril Blackett is well known across the state for his churches, some of which are heritage listed,” sais Ms Webb. “He was a very important figure, as a mayor of Manly in Sydney, and then as a mayor here.”
Traditional custodian of the Jerrinja/Wandi-Wandian people Noel Wellington supports the campaign to stop the development of the church and its grounds, saying there needs to be consultation with the local Aboriginal community and the descendants of King Billy’s queen, Mary Carpenter.
“What the council is trying to do with this church out at Husky is straight out wrong,” he said. “It should not be allowed, and I support fully the campaign mob out there that are trying to stop it. When is enough, enough? It’s wrong.”
But developer Mr Bartlett argues that there’s a silent majority in and around the town who support him and appreciate a need for development.
“There’s always tension between development and preservation but I think it’s better to intensify development in the town, and leave the bush alone,” he says.
“There’s always people who hate change, but I believe there really needs to be a balance.”