Two centuries of tree-felling, quarrying, manufacturing and residential development make it hard to imagine the peninsula when the First Fleet arrived. For one thing, the land was much higher, especially at its northwestern corner: today McCafferys Hill and the Knoll suggest the height of the land before stone was quarried.
Vegetation has been transformed, along with the animals and birds that lived here. Early colonists, expecting wilderness like the Americas, were surprised by an environment resembling the parks that were landscaped for English landowners. Hunter, in 1790, walked through pleasant country which, from the distance the trees grew from each other, and the gentle hills and dales, and rising slopes covered with grass, appeared like a vast park.
John Macarthur’s visitors made a similar point in 1806, when the land reminded them of Bad Pyrmont, a quiet German spa town.
These features were the result of Aboriginal fire-stick farming, which maintained grazing land for animals, and clumps of trees from which hunters speared them. Around Sydney Harbour, clans of the Eora nation enjoyed a varied diet: there were fish to spear and eels to trap, while mangroves supported ample shellfish (including oysters in Elizabeth Macarthur Bay and cockles in Cockle Bay).
The clans were almost wiped out by smallpox in 1789, and their successors began to transform the environment and the economy. Surgeon John Harris seized the opportunity to build an English country house, turning much of his Ultimo land grant into a deer park. He did, however, allow masons to quarry stone at the northern tip of the peninsula, which they sold as ballast or shipped out on barges. John Macarthur’s Pyrmont land grant, closer to the city, changed much sooner: trees were felled, the land subdivided, businesses established and houses built.