Timber was essential from the first days of the colony. 14 carpenters sailed in the First Fleet, to build the houses and barracks the colonists would need, and to repair the wooden ships on which the community relied. As soon as they landed therefore, they began looking for timber.
Pyrmont was an early target, but Aboriginal land management favoured more grass than trees, so timber-getters had to range farther afield. Another difficulty was that much of the available timber was heavier than the carpenters were accustomed to, and harder to work. However, when timber was found and felled up and down the coast, timber yards opened on Pyrmont’s northern and western shores, processing logs brought by water. Prominent among these yards were Goodlet & Smith on Elizabeth Macarthur Bay (from the 1860s) and Saxton & Binns on Pyrmont Bridge Road from the 1880s.
It would be difficult to overstate the importance of timber in the early colony, so some timber mills were very substantial enterprises. Goodlet & Smith, for example, opened a saw mill, wharf and moulding works at Murray Street in about 1872. In 1885 the mill moved to water frontage on Elizabeth Macarthur Bay. The main building had five storeys, housing an immense engine (double-cylinder horizontal, with cylinders 20 inches in diameter) driving belts that powered several processes throughout the building. Three other pairs of engines drove a paring-down machine, a horizontal borer, and the hydraulic accumulators and engineer’s machinery. Behind the building a 5-ton traveller ran into the building, worked by a flying rope. This industrial complex was built even before there was a made street. This complex operated until 1927.
No fewer than 17 other timber yards or sawmills are recorded in the peninsula between the 1850s and the 1940s, most on waterfront sites. When the Colonial Sugar Refinery occupied the northern shore from the 1870s, timber yards and sawmills mainly moved to the western shore, on Blackwattle Bay. In the 1880s the Blackwattle Bay waterfront hosted Robert Mays’s timber wharf and storage ground, next to another owned by P. Davies (with an engine and circular saws which cut paving blocks), then a shipbuilding works and (the oldest on this frontage) the timber yard belonging to Francis Guy.
By the 1920s these enterprises began to move out of Sydney altogether.