Pirrita Island and Miners Point, Swansea
In 2022 the Geographical Names Board approved the name change of Coon Island and Coon Island Point to Prirrita Island and Miners Point. The decision followed community consultation by the Geographical Names Board and Lake Macquarie City Council with relatives of Herbert Greta Heaney, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people and the wider community.
The names were chosen to represent the history of island for both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal community members
- Pirrita Island: Local Awabakal word for oysters from the mangrove trees, which signifies the oysters growing on the mangrove bushes in this part of the lake.
- Miners Point: reflects that the island point was named after local miner Herbert Greta Heaney and was home to many mining families.
Written by Kentan Proctor, Bahtabah Local Aboriginal Land Council, 2022
Pirrita Island is the land of the Awabakal people, Awaba referring to [the] flat plane or surface, meaning Lake Macquarie. Pirrita is a word that refers to an oyster from a mangrove tree. The rich culture and history of the area has lived for thousands of years and continues to live on. Located on the island and around are many sights of significance, from Pulbah Island to the southwest to Belmont Lagoon in the northeast (our local song line story). These are just some of the significant sites around. The island itself has many middens and artefacts. Middens are located around waterways and are often places where families/tribes would get together, eat, share knowledge and tell stories. They are often found in areas where you would like to sit or camp. The middens are normally geographically higher [than the surrounding area]. When they were eating and talking, they would discard their food waste such as shells and bones. After many years of the same families/tribes doing this, the mound would slowly build in size. They are filled with different species of fish, mammal and shells, the most common item found are cockle shells. The shells of many cockle species were also used to make fishing hooks. Just a few minutes from the island is lush bushland that is now a National Park. The indigenous people would walk between this and the island collecting resources and making tools, we know this from the abundance of material found in the proximity, and a significant amount of grinding grooves.
Pirrita Island is ecologically rich and diverse - from the large Salt Lake surrounding it to the gorgeous stream that flows through it on high tides giving life to the mangroves and marsh hidden within the island itself. The abundance of flora and fauna play a vital role culturally and ecologically. This ecological diversity is what makes the area of Lake Macquarie stand out. Each plant and animal plays a vital role or has a specific use. Due to the encroachment of society, a lot of invasive species have shown up in the area. These plants continue to push the natives out, the natives being resilient fight back and with the effort of community groups we have seen a steady increase in the native population. The prominent canopy species is the Casuarina - a beautiful pine needle like tree. Other native species of prominence include swamp lily, mangroves and razor grass and much more. Some of the area is an endangered ecological area, which shows how amazing and rare this area is. This area is also a stopover ground for many bird species from rare migratory birds to sea birds. Kangaroos and wallabies were also once prevalent in the area, today you are more likely to find smaller marsupials.
The earliest European reference to the island is in a map sketched by W.Proctor in 1841, the island is given the name ‘Keep Clear Pt’.
Permanent recorded European settlement on the island commenced in 1915 when the Crown Lands Department offered blocks for an annual rent of 2-3 pounds. The conditions of the lease required residents to maintain the foreshores of the island and stop the area being reclaimed by the fast-moving Swansea channel.
The first recorded lease was granted to Frederick “Jum” Parkes in November 1915; however, Herbert Greta Heaney is said to be the first person to live permanently on the island. According to Frederick Parkes’s granddaughter Joan Hadley, Parkes and Heaney raced to complete their homes on the island (Hall, V, History of Coon Island, 2007).
The island was originally named after Herbert Greta Heaney whose nickname “Coon” Heaney gave the island its original name. There are two main theories behind Herbert’s nickname.
- He was a miner, and he did not wash at the mine. When he returned home at the end of the day, he had coal dust on his face.
- He spent so much time out on the lake fishing he developed a dark tan (from his great-nephew Ron Hughes, as recorded by Val Hall).
Local historians George and Noelene Boyd have also presented an unreferenced note on the name in their publication ‘What's in a name: a brief history of some of the names past and present in and around the northern end of the Wallarah Peninsular’ citing the alleged origin of Herbert Heaney’s nickname as deriving from his resemblance to a ‘Coon’, as in Racoon.
Herbert Greta Heaney and his family used their property as a holiday home, living permanently on the island during the 1920s.
The Crown Lands Department leased 48 blocks on the island and new residents built small boat shed cottages. Most residents were mine workers from Wallsend and Cessnock who used the cottages as holiday homes.
- Roach family on verandah of weekender, No 28 Coon Island, 1920s. From Left Hector Ross, Hazel Ross, Arthur Roach, Rose Roach, Mr Rooke, and two members of the Rooke family
Ruth Holmes, Shirley Holmes and Joan Holmes May 1941 at Coon Island
Val Hall’s ‘A History of Coon Island’ provides short family histories on each of the island's residents. This history can be accessed via Lake Mac Libraries.
During early settlement residents could only access the island at low tide. By the early 1930s the community were petitioning Lake Macquarie Shire to construct a bridge. While requests were refused, due to the costs, residents took matters into their own hands constructing a basic car and pedestrian bridge. The Newcastle media kept track of the resilient residents during their campaign.
- "QUITE USELESS" (1927, July 25). The Newcastle Sun (NSW: 1918 - 1954), p. 5.
- NO COON ISLAND BRIDGE . (1938, January 20). Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners' Advocate (NSW: 1876 - 1954), p. 6.
- COON ISLAND FOLK ARE INDEPENDENT (1939, October 7). Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners' Advocate (NSW: 1876 - 1954), p. 10.
- COON ISLAND MED OFFER TO BUILDOWN BRIDGE (1939, October 31). The Newcastle Sun (NSW: 1918 - 1954), p. 5.
High tides collapsed the traffic bridge in 1943, once again leaving residents waiting on a road, a bridge, and electricity for their community.
- COON ISLANDERS NEED A NEW ACCESS (1942, November 24). The Newcastle Sun (NSW: 1918 - 1954), p. 4.
- SWANSEA HOMES ISOLATED (1943, April 28). Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners' Advocate (NSW: 1876 - 1954), p. 2.
- SUBURBIA—THIS WEEK COON ISLAND: A PIE ALWAYS FLOATED (1948, September 18). Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners' Advocate (NSW: 1876 - 1954), p. 4.
In 1944 Council provided two lorries, to assist residents to rebuild a road at the rear of their homes providing better access to the mainland. By the early 1950s residents had access to electricity, with town water accessible from 1957.
- ROAD AT COON ISLAND. (1944, June 7). Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners' Advocate (NSW: 1876 - 1954), p. 6.
Unfortunately, the difficulties faced by the residents continued, with high tides and channel erosion making access and occupation tough.
- COON ISLAND NOT TO BE EVACUATED (1945, June 27). The Newcastle Sun (NSW: 1918 - 1954), p. 5.
- SUBURBAN AND DISTRIC SEEK LIGHT, ROAD FOR COON ISLAND (1947, September 9). Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners' Advocate (NSW: 1876 - 1954), p. 5.
By the 1970s the Crowns Lands Department ceased offering leases on the island. In 1976, the residents were offered a land ballot to move their homes to Swansea.
The community resisted expulsion throughout the 1970s and 1980s showing a true love for their slice of paradise. Slowly conditions on the island, including access, flooding and non-renewable leases required residents to leave. The last resident recorded was Mrs Green of No 1 Coon Island, she left in 1994.
- Pirrita Island (formerly known as Coon Island) Floods 1970s
- Swansea flood 1990 - Pirrita Island (formerly known as Coon Island) showing access bridge 4 February 1990
- No 27. Roach weekender, Pirrita Island (formerly known as Coon Island), 1988, before demolition
In 1974, the island was declared a reserve and Lake Macquarie City Council took over as a trustee in 1979. The area has been cared for by a Management Board and a dedicated group of Landcare volunteers.
- History of Coon Island: a collection of facts, photos and memories from former resident's, photos and documents about the community that lived on Coon Island and Little Coonie, Swansea New South Wales between 1915 and 1994, Hall, Val 2007
- Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners' Advocate (NSW: 1876 - 1954)
- The Newcastle Sun (NSW: 1918 - 1954)
- Kentan Proctor, Bahtabah Local Aboriginal Land Council, 2021
This work by Lake Macquarie City Library is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License