Monday, March 22, 2010

Telling The Rocks Stories - Historical Interpretation in The Rocks

Visitors to Sydney come to The Rocks looking to experience Old Sydney; stories about the wonderful heritage buildings, the landscape of laneways and streets that date from the earliest days of the colony and the many prominent and ordinary people that lived and worked in The Rocks – the way Sydney was for much of the 19th century, a hard place with a strong community and a big heart. Every building and street corner has a story to be told, some intriguing, some sad and some amusing. In fact The Rocks has been a witness and often participant in the many social, political and cultural changes that have characterised the progression of Australia from oppressive convict colonialism to a democratic multicultural nation – from the rum rebellion to federation, The Rocks has played a role.
The Foreshore Authority recently prepared an interpretation strategy called ‘Telling The Rocks Stories’ which aims to bring the history of our buildings, places and people into the streets and laneways, so our visitors can ‘discover’ and experience the stories where they happened and in their own leisurely way.
The strategy was constructed as a ‘toolbox’ of ways and means to present the many stories in the public domain; and to inspire and encourage further enquiry through The Rocks Discovery Museum. The toolbox includes:
  • Presenting in-situ historic pictures of streets and places from the past
  • Presenting through pictures and facts, the life and achievements of both the distinguished and common people of The Rocks
  • Building partnerships with our tenants by encouraging the integration of the stories of their buildings; people, events, activities and chronology into their marketing and store presentation
  • Marking through footpath inlays stories of lost fabric, places of interest, people and events
  • Exposing and interpreting remaining original fabric in unique ways
A wide range of stories have already been completed and installed in footpaths, on the sides of buildings and around the streets and laneways. A selection of these stories is presented below.

George Street – the colony’s first street and woodblock paving
Information panel at 55 George Street, The Rocks


Fig 1 Panel on the wall of the Holiday Inn, 55 George Street including an interpretation installation of woodblock paving

George Street in The Rocks was the first road made by Europeans following their arrival in Sydney Cove in January 1788. The original track was determined by the lines of tents erected for shelter, including a hospital and bakehouse. Within weeks an observatory was established at Dawes Point and the track extended to it. The “road” was little more than a dirt path; there were no carriages, carts or other wheeled vehicles and only a handful of horses, and so the population walked. The track ran partly along a ledge of flat rock above the waterline. It is most probable that this track may have been made by the Cadigal people who had been living in the area for millennia and who continued to bake fish on the flat rocks by the water’s edge after the arrival of the Europeans.

The original road was called High Street, until Governor Macquarie changed it to George Street in 1810, named in honour of King George III. It was a dirt track for the first decades of its existence and threw up clouds of dust in the dry weather and became a muddy quagmire in the wet. Skilled engineers began arriving in the 1820s and the roads benefited from the new road building methods of Thomas Telford and John MacAdam. Their techniques were adapted to colonial conditions, and the old method of simply ‘throwing up’ a road was abandoned. Roads began to be constructed in strata of graded broken stone, laid in cambered beds and given a final coat of ironstone.

Fig 2
George Street around 1880, showing stone paving prior to woodblocks.
(Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority collection).


Woodblock Paving

By the 1880s, Sydney was a thriving commercial centre with a growing population and expanding city precinct. A city of dirt streets presented poorly and contributed to muddy erosion, much to the annoyance of shopkeepers. Steel shod horses, buggies and carriages, being the backbone of personal and commercial transportation, needed a firm and stable surface with good traction and the ability of the surface to minimise noise.

Experiments with sandstone proved a failure in heavy traffic areas as stone paving readily wore and cracked. Woodblocks were selected because they reduced noise, looked attractive, minimised dust, were durable and easily cleaned. Australia also had an ample supply of suitable hardwood timber.

Fig 3
A Block Boy c1900
(City of Sydney archives)


The woodblocks were washed down every night, and the addition of disinfectant was believed to lower risk of disease. To keep the streets clean through the day, the council employed ‘block boys’ to pick up rubbish and horse droppings. They were affectionately called ‘sparrow starvers’ because in the droppings were undigested seeds, that the sparrows ate. It became a much sort after job by local lads and often led to a career on the council.



Where were they used?


Fig 4
Plan of Sydney showing the general extent of woodblock paving in early 20th century.
(City of Sydney archives)


Woodblocks began to be used by the Sydney City Council as a road surface from the 1880s, and by 1900 much of Sydney from Broadway to Dawes Point and from Darling Harbour to Kings Cross was paved in woodblocks. The last woodblocks were laid during the 1930s. The use of woodblocks for road surfacing had been tried in Britain and the United States but found to be unsatisfactory, possibly due to rot from higher rainfall and the use of poorer softwoods which are more common in these countries.


How were they used?

The section of George Street between Dawes Point and Argyle Street was paved in 1888 and used to trial various specifications for preparing and laying of woodblocks. Sydney Council experimented with the use of tar and pitch, block spacing, bedding and surface finishing. The best timbers for woodblocks were found to be Australian Class 1 hardwoods including blue gum, red gum, ironbark, black butt, tallowwood, mahogany and turpentine.

Fig 5
Laying woodblock paving at the intersection of George Street and Queen’s Wharf, now First Fleet Park in the 1930s.
(Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority collection)


The blocks were brick-shaped and laid in a stretcher bond pattern. The surface of the woodblocks was top-dressed with tar, pea-gravel and sand to provide a firm surface and to combat slipperiness. Consequently George Street North did not require maintenance for five years, proving the cost and labour effectiveness of woodblocks.

Fig 6
Demonstrating the patterns of laying woodblocks in the Warren Report, 1901.
(Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority collection)



Where did they go?
The gradual replacement of horse and cart with much heavier automobiles saw an increase in wear of the woodblocks. They were progressively removed from most parts of the city and replaced with asphalt. The woodblocks were considered perfect for firewood and during the Great Depression, young boys were often caught helping themselves to one or two to heat the family home and cook dinner. The Council also gave redundant woodblocks to the elderly and disadvantaged.
Fig 7
Woodblocks exposed in George Street 2006.









Francis Greenway 1777 to1837 - convict architect
Information panel situated at rear of 85 George Street, Greenway Lane, off Argyle Street The Rocks – where Francis Greenway lived between 1816 - 1836.

Francis Greenway was born in Mangotsfield near Bristol and studied architecture under John Nash. He started his practice in 1805 but in 1812 was convicted of forging a building contract and sentenced to death, later commuted to transportation for fourteen years. Greenway arrived in Sydney in February 1814 and set up a practice soon after at 84 George St. In 1816 Governor Macquarie appointed him the first Government Architect. With the post came lodgings in the Assistant Surgeon’s house which formerly stood at 91 George Street. Greenway designed most of Sydney’s public buildings during Macquarie’s period as governor from 1810 to 1822. His grand designs and arrogant nature often brought him into conflict with his clients and led to much ill will towards him. After Macquarie returned to England and without his patronage, public servants and builders began to alter his designs, the ultimate insult. He was dismissed in 1822 by Governor Brisbane after further disputes; however he refused to give up his house in The Rocks and produced a title deed of ownership which is now suspected of being a forgery. In his six years as Government Architect he is credited with designing 40 buildings, 11 still remain today. A selection of surviving Greenway buildings is shown below:


Fig 9 - 11
St James Church, Queens Square, Sydney

Hyde Park Barracks, Macquarie Street, Sydney
Conservatorium of Music, (formerly Government House stables) Conservatorium Road, Sydney


Larrikins and Donahs in Suez Canal
Information panels in Suez Canal, one of the known haunts of The Rock’s Push

As the night was slowly falling over city, town and bush, From a slum in Bludgers Alley slunk the Captain of the Push, And his whistle loud and piercing woke the echoes of The Rocks, And a dozen ghouls came sloping round the corners of the blocks… (Henry Lawson. The Captain of the Push)

During the 19th century, The Rocks was depicted as a place where ‘slang and vulgarity were mixed in lavish quantities, where harlots and riffraff, ex-convicts and the scum of all the oceans collected’. "Suez Canal" (supposedly a pun on "sewers"), was one of the most unsavoury places in Sydney in its time. It was haunted by prostitutes and larrikins, there were brothels, sly grog shops and an opium den. At the end of a laneway in the courtyard near the British Seaman’s Hotel locals gathered to place their bets on blood sports like cock fighting. It was a brave or foolish person who wandered down the alleyways of The Rocks at night.


Fig 12-14
Interpretive images of larrikins located in Suez Canal


Most cities have their version of Sydney’s Larrikins, young men out for a good time and trouble, they organised themselves into street gangs that were known as ‘Pushes’. The larrikins were said to be; “characteristically a city dweller, tough, defiant, reckless, and given to exaggerated dress. He hung about in gangs, or pushes, which indulged in violence and fringe crime; and spoke a clannish jargon that few outsiders understood. His well-fed companion gave rise to the simile, ‘as fat as a larrikin’s dog’. The larrikin was a flashy dresser; Banjo Patterson described them as wearing “black bell-bottomed pants, no waistcoat, very short black paget coat, white shirt with no collar, and a gaudy neckerchief round the bare throat. Their boots were marvels, very high in the heel and picked out with all sorts of colours down the sides.

The gangs were engaged in running warfare with other Sydney gangs of the time such as the Straw Hat Push, the Glebe Push, the Argyle Cut Push, the Forty Thieves from Surry Hills and the Gibb Street Mob. They conducted such crimes as theft, assault and battery against police and pedestrians in the Rocks area. Female companions of the Push, called ‘Donah’s,’ would entice drunks and seamen into dark areas to be assaulted and robbed by the gang.

Women were warned never to go near Suez Canal, there were stories of young women who were kidnapped and forced to work in the brothels where the women were not much more than sex slaves. Ruth Park wove this into her novel of The Rocks ‘Playing Beatie Bow’ where the heroine, Abigail, is abducted and forced into a disused warehouse full of unsavory characters. Fortunately she is rescued before we find what hideous fate her abductors had in mind for her.

Fig 15-16
Cartoon images of larrikins and donahs from The Bulletin c 1900


In 1891 it was reported that there was an opium den in Suez Canal, and several others spread through The Rocks, where the activities that were said to go on in them were shocking. Opium dens were the worst places in the city, much worse than sly grog shops and ordinary brothels. The Chinese residents of The Rocks were accused of using opium to drug young women and take advantage of them. When this was investigated, there was no truth to it, but the reputation was established and hard to shift.

The combination of gambling, prostitution, drugs and violence that occurred here in the 19th century all helped to form the popular reputation that The Rocks was a slum and deserved to be demolished.

Brown Bear Lane mural
A mural in-situ – on the corner of the Galleria at 155 George Street

One of the colony’s earliest streets, Brown Bear Lane, was located close to this spot. The Rocks' very first pub, The Romping Horse, was located on the corner of the lane from 1789. The pub was later known as The Brown Bear (1836–1900) while further up the lane was another hotel known as The Black Dog (1804–1848).

Brown Bear Lane became Little Essex Street in the 1890s. The lane disappeared around 1913 when a row of shops was built between Essex Street and this location. The row was partly demolished in 1956 when the railway viaduct was built.

Fig 17 Brown Bear Lane photograph 1901. (Sydney Harbour Foreshore Collection)

Fig 18
Brown Bear Lane mural being painted on the side wall of 155 George Street, 2006

In 1844 Thomas Warne was brutally murdered by his servant in a tenement on this corner. His body was cut up and then burned in the chimney. The remains were put in a chest and taken to Cadman's Cottage, located further north on George Street. A boatman was hired to dispose of the chest in the harbour however he became suspicious and alerted a police constable who discovered the gruesome crime.

Commissariat Stores – colonial government storehouse
Information panel on George Street opposite First Fleet Park
Fig 19
Panel located on the stairs leading to First Fleet Park


The Commissariat Stores were built in 1809 and 1812 and stood until 1939. They served as the colonial government’s storehouse, purchasing cargos for re-sale to the people of New South Wales. In later years they were offices for construction of public works, such as Circular Quay, and in the 1930s administered employment and unemployment benefits during the Depression.
The current building on the site was built between 1940 and 1953 as the Maritime Services Board offices, becoming the Museum of Contemporary Art in the early 1990s.

Fig 20
Commissariat Stores seen from George Street 1880s.
(Sydney Harbour Foreshore Collection)
Fig 21
Commissariat Stores (building at the left) as seen from Circular Quay in 1866.
(Sydney Harbour Foreshore Collection)


Describing the vicinity in 1829, ex-convict Thomas Dowse wrote:

Attached to the Commissariat Store was a Guard room at which a detachment of the Military Garrison kept guard over the property of the Imperial Government.

The daily relief which took place at 11 o'clock a.m. was quite a military display, the Regimental band performing for about an hour upon the green at the opposite side of the street whilst the sentries were being relieved.

The old wharf, how shall I describe that pretentious structure, having the grandiloquent name of the King's Wharf. It had a frontage to the cove of about a hundred feet, just sufficient space for a moderate sized vessel's gangway to lay alongside her bow then overlapping the waterman's steps placed at its southern end.

Next to the King's wharf, and at nearly the head of the cove, was the Liverpool wharf, a small wooden structure so named for the cutter "Lord Liverpool", making that spot her point of departure every Saturday afternoon, wind and weather permitting, for Newcastle with HM mail.

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