By MICK ROBERTS ©
THE entrepreneurial Cyril Astley Maer was a determined character. If he had achieved his dream, reached his goal, more than 20 imposing Federation style Bungalow homes would have peered over the escarpment edge at Bulli Tops, beside the Panorama Hotel.
His residential subdivision plan though was never realised.
Captain Maer, as he was known locally, purchased six acres of land sandwiched between Bulli Lookout, the Prince’s Highway and Sublime Point, on Bulli Tops in 1923. He built refreshment rooms, and a lookout perched on the cliff-edge as part of a grand plan for the site.
Beside his vision for a residential subdivision, Maer also wanted an elaborate tourist hostel built for an increasing number of motorists visiting the famed Bulli Pass. But… first things first. He built canvass refreshment rooms, which he convinced NSW Premier George Fuller to open. In a story titled, “Digger’s Enterprise”, The Sunday Times reported on January 25 1925:
Sir George Fuller has been honoured by the adoption of a lookout named after him at the top of the Bulli Pass descent. After the war, Captain Maer, an English army officer, who saw service in India, France, and with the A.I.F., searched the State for a promising venture. He eventually chose a convenient spot on the South Coast road near the top of the pass and pitched his tent. He was joined by two mates, but they did not have the persevering spirit and left him alone. Captain Maer set to work and cleared the land about his canvas home. He made a wide pathway drive in from the main road, sent for his brother in Canada, erected quaint rustic fences, put up shelters, and then erected a fine refreshment room. Sir George Fuller opened it for him, and the whole of the Cabinet signed the first names in his visitors’ book. The book is offered to all motoring callers, and contains names of visitors from every part of the world. Captain Maer is a courteous and business-like gentleman and he deserves and is bound to succeed. From the refreshment room a magnificent panorama of 11 townships can be had.
Maer ended-up on Bulli Tops in the early 1920s after both his marriage and health failed. The Melbourne gossip newspaper, Table Talk reported on Thursday April 14 1927 that Maer established his refreshment rooms at a time when he was “at a loose end materially and physically”.
Captain Maer was literally looking over the edge of things… He established the little luncheon room there and began to fight his way back to health and success. Today he has achieved both, the one in full, the other in fair measure. Men don’t give up fighting when they leave the army. This man who guards the pass at Premier Point is as plucky in civil life as ever he was in his galvanised iron hut in Mespot.
Mespot, or Mesopotamia, in the Middle East, was the scene of an infamous World War I battle often compared to Gallipoli in its intensity and high casualty rate. It was there that Maer became an invalid, after suffering “shell shock”, which eventually lead him to a secluded little canvas hut on the cliff edge at Bulli Tops.
Born in India in 1874, Maer was the son of a clergyman. He met his future wife Constance Muriel Scott, also a child of a clergyman, in about 1908. Constance, 24, was studying to be a medical general practitioner, and Maer, 34, was a civil engineer.
They married in Canterbury, England in 1910 before returning to India, where Maer was employed in the Forestry Department. Constance though grew tired of their visits to “uncivilised parts of the frontier” and they eventually parted company.
Maer sailed south to Tasmania without his wife in 1913, later making his way to Sydney. Constance returned to England to practice her medical profession. They wrote frequently to each other, and he hoped one day she would join him in Australia. However, it was never to be.
When the Great War broke out he joined the first contingent, and served in Gallipoli, afterwards quartered in Egypt. He was given leave to visit England to meet his wife in Canterbury for 10 days and although they lived together, their “marital relations were never resumed”.
Maer rejoined his battalion, later gaining a commission in the Indian Army to which he had been transferred from the AIF, owing to his knowledge of the British colony. Interestingly, Constance used her medical knowledge serving as a doctor during the war in military hospitals in Egypt during 1917 and 1918. She was made an Officer of the Civil Division of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire for her services after the war.
Meanwhile, Maer was wounded while fighting in Mesopotamia, and sailed to Norfolk Island to recuperate. At the age of 46, he filed and was granted a divorce from 36-year-old Constance in 1920.
By 1923 he had purchased property at Bulli Tops, where he pitched a tent ready to establish a tourist attraction to cater for the growing number of motor vehicles visiting nearby Bulli Lookout and Sublime Point.
The Melbourne gossip newspaper Table Talk reported on Thursday April 14 1927:
Motoring in the week-end to Bulli Pass, I noticed on the brow of the wonderful hill a quaint little tea-house and post-office, which clings to the summit by digging both feet into windy edge of the cliff and sprawling back defensively. Some day a big wind will blow the tiny house into the valley. It looked an inviting place for lunch so we went in, and I renewed acquaintance with the proprietor, Captain Maer, whom all Sydney knows, for every celebrity who passes along the Great Southern Road has, I believe, called in to eat there and sign the famous visitors’ book. Even the insignificant gain a sort of spurious fame from finding themselves in the pages of this book.
The war veteran, now 51, approached Bulli Shire Council in 1925 with grand plans to subdivide his six acres of land for 26 residential lots. Each block would have a frontage to the cliffs overlooking the coast, while 900 feet of the southern end of the frontage to the Princes Highway would be set aside for a tourist hostel, with a restaurant catering for 200 people.
Bulli Shire Council, who operated tourist lookouts on either side of Maer’s six acres, strongly opposed the proposal and immediately applied to the NSW Lands Department to have the property resumed for tourism purposes.
The NSW Government rejected the resumption of Maer’s property after representation from the State MP for Bulli, Andrew Lysaght. However, the Minister for Lands said he would consider making an effort to secure the land for public recreation if Bulli Shire Council contributed half the cost.
Maer responded by fighting the Bulli Shire Council in the courts – and won. In an interview with the Illawarra Mercury on March 5 1926, Maer said:
“The Council’s right to refuse their consent to my plan was based upon consideration of public convenience. In this connection I would point out that my counsel had, for some reasons which he deemed expedient, refrained from putting before His Honor the purposes for which it had been arranged the land comprised in the sub-division should be used, and it might be inferred from His Honor’s remarks that the idea was to sell the land so that unsightly humpies would be erected for sale to people who would scatter rubbish over the land, and generally convert the beautiful spot into an unsightly area. This was far from my intention”.
Would you say just what your intentions are? was the question put by our representative.
“I have already arranged”, replied the Captain, “for the flotation of a company to acquire the land and to build on it a hostel and refreshment rooms, to cost £5000 or £6000. Everything would be done to beautify the surroundings with ornamental trees and gardens. Tennis courts would also be constructed and everything done to cater for the very large demand being made by the travelling public for accommodation.”
Would all the land be used for this purpose? we asked. “No,” was the reply.
“The residue of the land, in terms of the prospectus of the proposed company, would be offered for sale.”
Unconditionally, we queried. “No,” continued Capt. Maer.
“It would be sold with a building covenant providing that no premises other than residences were to be erected, and any buildings erected were to cost not less than £1000, to be roofed with tiles, slates or other material approved by the vendors. I might add,” continued the Captain, “that provision would also be made to preserve all trees and shrubs growing on the property. Only the undergrowth would be cleaned up, so as to make the place look as park-like as possible”.
We suggested that some provision should be made for public rights.
“I would point out to you,” said the Captain, “that the areas in the locality at present vested in trustees for the public have not been improved in any way to meet public convenience. My brother and myself, on the small leasehold at present held by us, have provided a public convenience.
“I would also point out that invariably at week-ends and public holidays visitors by the hundreds call at our refreshment rooms for meals , and refreshments, for whom it is impossible to cater with the limited accommodation we have at hand, although my brother and myself have spent on improvements on our leasehold getting on for £2000. Moreover, our present holding being public property, we find the greatest difficulty in keeping off objectionable travellers and roisterers who visit the place and demand access to the grounds and the Lookout”.
Then you maintain that your place is a public convenience? we asked.
“I maintain that the public will be infinitely better served by my proposal than if the land in question is vested in trustees for the public”.
If you construct a hostel have you any guarantee that it will be patronised? we questioned.
“Oh, yes,” replied the Captain. “So satisfied are the officials of the Tourist Bureau with my efforts that they have agreed to guarantee me from 100 to 300 guests per week at the hostel, should it be erected. Subject, of course, to the provision of first-class accommodation.”
And has your proposal got good backing? was the next question.
“The gentlemen associated with me in the company flotation are some of the best known and most spirited public men in Sydney, who would decline to be associated with any company who so operations would not do them credit.
“I would ask you,” continued the Captain, “if it is deemed politic for the Crown to resume my area,” then why not take steps to resume the whole of the frontages of the Prince’s Highway from Bulli Pass to Mount Keira, together with the whole of the glorious tropical growth underlying the Bulli Pass, which is one of the glories of the Pass.”
What about a parking area at the Pass, Captain Maer?
“I maintain that an expenditure of £100 on the land adjacent to the Look-out would provide parking area for 100 cars, without the slightest prejudicial effect to the catchment area, of which it forms part”.
In January 1928 work was underway on the hostel. The architect for the single storey brick building was RV Minnett and the building contractor a Mr Carswell of Sydney. On its completion at a cost of £16,000 in October 1928 the premises were named Panorama House. By this time, Maer’s interest in the site was done, and he had moved to Victoria.
His little refreshment rooms were taken over by 59-year-old Horace James Avis and his wife Edith.
Maer eventually moved south to Victoria, where he was mentioned in the Prahran Telegraph on March 1 1929 after St Kilda Council rejected his application to sell “a cream product to prevent sunburn” on the beach. At the age of 56 he married Ethel Nugent, another woman in the medical field – a nurse – in about 1930. He’s mentioned several times over the following years in the Victorian electoral rolls, right up to 1963 before his death in a Brisbane nursing home in 1967 at the age of 84.
Meanwhile, back at Bulli Pass on Saturday, July 27 1929 the Bulli Pass Hostel Company’s 20 allotment subdivision, north of Panorama House, was to be submitted to auction. Each lot had a frontage of 100ft to the Prince’s Highway, with depths ranging from 360 to 580ft. Richardson and Wrench, Sydney, and F. Bevan and Sons, Wollongong, were the auctioneers. However, the residential lots were never built upon, and the land was eventually resumed by the NSW Government, and managed as a recreational and conservation reserve by Bulli Shire Council.
Bulli Shire Council was not keen to continue leasing the old Premier Lookout refreshment rooms. By 1931 Panorama House had been licensed as a hotel, and Council wanted to demolish the old refreshment rooms, located to the south. Avis, however had other ideas.
The Sydney Morning Herald reported in February 1931 that the NSW Land Board held an inquiry into Avis’ special lease, which adjoined Hopetoun Park, and was controlled by the Bulli Shire Council.
The council wanted to take control of the area that Avis. The board came to the decision that, as it formed Avis’s means of livelihood, and he ran the room “entirely in the interests of tourists and the travelling public, there was no need at this stage to deprive him of his living, so long as there was inserted in the lease provision for the public being able to use the land and be charged only for the conveniences provided”.
Media reports from the time though, reveal that Avis’ management of the Premier Lookout left a lot to be desired. The Illawarra Mercury reported in January 1936:
At the ‘Premier’ Lookout (between Bulli Lookout and Panorama Hotel) it was found lavatory accommodation is not all it should be, the kiosk building and the coverings over the picnic tables being in bad condition, while surveyors had recently destroyed the hedge along the cliff edge and also broken the fence, this property being occupied temporarily under permit from Council by the tenant. Generally, there was evidence of carelessness by visitors, heaps of papers and food stuffs being left lying about and human filth all over the place, all of which has to be removed and buried by lessees of the kiosk. Crs. Clowes and Kelly at once moved that the Shire Clerk’s report be adopted and Mr. Miller’s letter received. In moving the motion, Cr. Clowes spoke at length. “A couple of years ago,” he said, “the Lands Dept. handed over the Premier area to Council, and, at the time, it was the opinion of the Dept. all buildings, etc., there on should be disposed of and the revenue received expended in the improvement of the area. It is evident there has not been proper supervision of the lavatories and Council is partly responsible. It is the duty of Council to see that the grievance is rectified at the Premier, which can be done by cancelling the tenancy of the proprietor (Mr. Avis) and closing the lookout on that area. I have previously stated the kiosk there is continued in opposition to Council’s own kiosk at Bulli Lookout nearby. There is certainly a case for investigation, and for some action to be taken, as it is certainly not a credit to Council as at present. In my opinion the best action would be to have Premier Lookout, with the resumed reserve of 500 acres below, together with Sublime Point and Bulli Lookout, all under one control. With all under one Trust an appeal could then be made to the Government for grants of financial assistance, and the whole area could be so improved as to be unquestionably worthy of the beautiful area which it certainly is.
The writing was on the wall for the Premier Lookout, with Bulli Council determined to have it closed. The Council’s Health Committee made several more inspections of the site during the late 1930s, with a recommendation in 1936 stating the condition of the lookout and refreshment rooms was growing worse each year, and the lease should be terminated and the tourist attraction closed. By 1940 Premier Point was no longer operating as a tourist attraction and was closed.
Bronwen Chamberlain, who ran the nearby Bulli Lookout, told me that the refreshment rooms were eventually destroyed by a bushfire.
Horace Avis, who ran the Premier Lookout from 1928 to about 1940, died at the age of 77 on December 23 1947. He was survived by his widow Edith.
© Copyright Mick Roberts 2015
- A special thanks to Cate Gow, Katherine Garnham and Kym Bally, members of the Facebook Page, Australian People Through the Years, for their help in tracing Maer’s final years.