Located between Hannah Street and Chapman Avenue in Beecroft, Fearnley Park contains significant remnants of Blue Gum High Forest, once the dominant vegetation occurring on Wianamatta shale soils on the high rainfall ridgelines on the North Shore and northern suburbs of Sydney. Devlins Creek, which rises in nearby Blackwood Sanctuary runs through the park.
Its history reflects stages of settlement in Beecroft since the period beginning with the arrival of the first European settlers.
This piece of land was part of farmland owned by John Savage, Assistant Surgeon (1770 – 1838?), who arrived in NSW in 1803. Savage acquired 330 acres, farmed for him by emancipist cattle farmers. He was a supporter of Dr Edward Jenner, and in the colony he carried out a vaccination program against smallpox, using a vaccine derived from cowpox. His success brought him into collision with the Principal Surgeon Thomas Jamison who, probably due to jealously, had him courtmartialled for neglect of duty. Governor Philip Gidley King was sympathetic and Savage returned to England where his conviction was set aside. The Reverend Samuel Marsden supervised his land holdings in his absence. When Jenner obtained a post for him with the East India Company, Marsden sold the remaining land holdings on Savage’s request.
A later owner of this part of Savage’s land was another interesting character, William Walter Davis (1840 – 1923). Davis, who ran away from his Bathurst home at the age of 13 to become a drover, subsequently had a career as cattle dealer, station owner and auctioneer, holding land in western NSW and southern Queensland. He became manager of pastoral firm Davis, Dale & Co. and put down the first artesian bore in NSW in 1886. He served in the NSW Legislative Assembly as member for Bourke from 1889-91 and was re-elected in 1898, serving until 1900 when financial losses saw him retire, although he served two further periods as an MLA.
In 1905 he purchased a Beecroft orchard (of which Fearnley Park formed part). When he died at Randwick in 1923 he was survived by his third wife, Florence and 16 of his 19 children.
In 1906 Davis’s 11 acres (4.45 hectares) in Beecroft were bought by John Fearnley, who had been in the shipping business since his arrival in Australia in 1880, aged 19. In WW1 he served as District Naval Officer in Newcastle. He extended the existing cottage on the land into the large house he named Rivington. It is seen today facing into the park, with its rear to Cardinal Avenue. From 1929 it was leased and in the 1930s served as a ‘convalescent home’. After WW11 the Fearnley family decided to subdivide the land, but Hornsby Council requested that the creek be piped before the sale went ahead. Unwilling to undertake this cost, the Fearnleys donated 4 ½ acres (1.8 hectares) for the park we see today, the rest becoming home sites fronting onto Hannah Street, Chapman Avenue and Cardinal Avenue.
During the 1930s depression, as was common at the time, homeless persons camped in the area, attracted by the easy access to water from the creek. One was an Aboriginal woman. Another was ‘a perfect gentleman’ named Syd, who lived in a hessian-lined tent and specialised in making wire baskets, a trade then taught to prisoners. Syd made a living busking on the Manly ferries and doing some gardening for Beecroft families. Alf Bonner lived in a shack constructed from hammered-out kerosene tins, where the playground is now sited. Feeling threatened by the approaching sub-division, he swallowed a dose of cyanide, having handed a note to a nearby neighbour, Mr Alan Whatmore, who owned Hadley Lodge (built 1939 and now demolished) at 78 Hannah Street. Police found two bankbooks in his shack that revealed he had considerable savings.
Residents have recalled another occurrence in the park in 1961. Alan Whatmore persuaded Gladys Moncrieff, described as Australia’s ‘best-loved singer’, to visit the park. He organised a ceremony attended by the Shire President, Max Ruddock, and local MLA Eric Hearnshaw. She sang for the assembled residents. Her visit was commemorated by a plaque on a seat placed in a site overlooking Devlins Creek – a replacement seat is still there.
In 1987 Hornsby Council undertook one of it first regeneration projects in the park, clearing privet along the small tributary creek and replanting with native trees, including Blue Gums, She Oaks and Coachwoods. From 2005, following the declaration of Sydney Blue Gum Forest as an endangered ecological community, Council began funding an ongoing regeneration project carried out by both contractors and an active volunteer group. It is now a wonderful combination of healthy native vegetation and recreation areas.