Looking up - Sydney's history from a new angle


New Year celebrations

Posted by Lisa Murray in Blog on December 17, 2014. [No comments]

New Year's Eve in Sydney, Australian Town & Country Journal, 11 January 1902 p21

New Year's Eve in Sydney, Australian Town & Country Journal, 11 January 1902 p21

Sydney is a bit of a party town. Over the years we have celebrated the new year in a number of different ways. While the harbour and the bridge are the focus of the fireworks today, and this is potent symbol of Sydney, this tradition has a relatively short history. It hasn’t always been about fireworks.

We have a great article in the Dictionary of Sydney written by a colleague of mine, Hannah Forsyth, that charts the changing fashions of this significant event.

For a long time in the nineteenth century New Year’s Day was the main focus. This reflects the Scottish tradition of Hogmanay. The Scottish connections were overtly celebrated with the popular Highland Gathering at the Sydney Cricket Ground. Picnics were also popular, and musical performances at dance halls and vaudeville venues.

Things began to shift in the 1870s as people began to gather on the streets in the city in the evening. But other urban factors coalesced in the 1890s to give rise to modern celebrations of New Years Eve.

First, There was a changing perception of time. Australia shifted from local time (measured by the sun) to international standard time (measured from Greenwich, London) in 1895. Sydney was now keeping time relative to the rest of the world. Second, Sydney was lit with incandescent gaslights in 1896, providing a much brighter night light. It was now possible to see much better and large crowds could gather in light rather than darkness.

Queen Victoria Building, Sydney 1896. By Perier, Albert James. From the collection of the State Library of New South Wales, perier_34474 / Home and Away 34474

Consequently, thousands of people descended on the city streets on 31 December 1896. Shops stayed open late, adding their brightly lit shop windows to the festivities. George Street heaved from King Street to Goulburn Street. The Haymarket end of George Street was dominated by the working classes, while the Queen Victoria Market filled with “irresponsible youths …. Evidently factory hands”.

The Strand Arcade, Sydney Arcade and Imperial Arcade filled with aspiring bourgeois. There is a great photograph of the arcades at this time, taken with a new tangled flashlight. What an innovation! As the countdown to midnight neared, the crowd shifted to the GPO, where the monumental clock tower had been erected just a few years earlier.

So began the first modern New Years Eve. Over the next few years, the celebrations got increasingly noisy and rowdy. People carried musical instruments, kazoos, even pots and pans, to bang in the new year. Bonfires in the streets became a problem, as did larrikins.

Celebrations shifted suddenly in 1939 to Kings Cross, catching authorities by surprise. It remained the centre of festivities until the introduction of fireworks in 1977, and it took another 10 years for the crowd to shift its focus. The shift to Circular Quay was part of the new Sydney Festival.

Crowds remained rowdy and dangerous until the eve of 1989 when it was rebranded as a more family friendly affair. The City of Sydney took over organising the fireworks in 1996. Since then it has bigger and glossier every year.

While New Years crowds have a chequered history, we hope everyone remains relaxed and safe this Christmas and New Year. Party safely and remember you’re part of a long tradition celebrating the new year.

And while you’re relaxing over the summer why not dip in to a bit more history? Dictionary authors and staff have put together a list of summer reading to keep you entertained until we’re back in January.

Thanks to everyone to listening, reading and supporting the Dictionary. See you in 2015!

If you missed Lisa’s segment this morning with Mitch on 2SER Breakfast, you can catch up on the podcast here.



Summer reading

Posted by Jacqueline Spedding in Blog on December 15, 2014. [1 comment]

Caroline Ford, Sydney Beaches: A History, NewSouth books

Well, it’s almost a wrap for the Dictionary for 2014 and what a year it has been! We’ve moved office, upgraded and transferred our IT systems, created our first walking app and published over 60 new entries for you, our readers, to enjoy. Not to mention the 52 blog posts from our weekly breakfast spot on 2SER radio. If you haven’t already, be sure to sign up for our newsletters to get the full news on all that is new to the Dictionary in 2015.

It’s become a recent tradition to end the year with some summer reading recommendations. In 2013, our volunteer historian and researcher, Catie Gilchrist, tipped Girt: The Unauthorised History of Australia by David Hunt to be the best read of the year and she was spot on with the book winning the 2014 Indie Award for Non-Fiction.

David wasn’t the only winner tipped in our 2013 reading list: long-time Dictionary volunteer Garry Wotherspoon’s The Sydney Mechanics School of Arts: A History, was shortlisted in the 2014 NSW Premier’s History Awards alongside fellow Dictionary author, historian Ian Hoskin. Ian took out the NSW Premier’s Prize for Community and Regional History for his book, Coast: A History of the New South Wales Edge.

So here are our 2014 summer reading suggestions:

Alasdair McGregor, A Forger's Progress, NewSouth Books

Alasdair McGregor, A Forger’s Progress: The Life of Francis Greenway, NewSouth books

As Australia’s first government architect, Francis Greenway has left an enduring legacy in Sydney. Sentenced to death for forgery, than granted a last minute reprieve, he was transported to NSW in 1814. Under the patronage of Governor Macquarie he was responsible for designing Hyde Park Barracks, St James’ Church, the first Supreme Court and the courthouse at Windsor, amongst other achievements. Both bonkers and brilliant, this is a fascinating insight into a very complex man. He was also pivotal in the transition from Sydney as a ‘penal colony’ to a society of respectable free settlers.

Babette Smith, The Luck of the Irish: How a Shipload of Convicts Survived the Wreck of the Hive to Make a New Life in Australia, Allen and Unwin

The convict ship Hive sank off the NSW coast in 1835 with 250 Irish convicts on board. Luckily for them, ‘the luck’ of the Irish was with them, and they all survived. Rather than cast the Irish in Sydney as second class citizens, this book instead reveals that many Irish men from the Hive found Sydney a place of opportunity, re-invention and new beginnings.

Babette Smith, The Luck of the Irish, Allen and Unwin

Raden Dunbar, The Secrets of the ANZACs: The Untold Story of Venereal Disease in the Australian Army, 1914­–1919, Scribe

Sex, scandal, the debunking of the ANZAC Legend  – what is not to like? Many returned, infected, ANZACs were immediately whisked off to the Randwick Hospital, away from the public gaze, when they returned home. These ANZAC ‘heros’ do not belong in the ANZAC Legend and their stories have not been acknowledged for almost a century. This is a story which reveals their reality. It is also a story of morality, shame, sex education and the official recognition that prophylactics be distributed amongst Australia’s first AIF. Fascinating indeed.

Caroline Ford, Sydney Beaches: A History, NewSouth books

Today we take going to the beach for a swim or a ‘bake’ for granted. This, readers might be surprised to know, was not always the case. This glorious book charts the intriguing story about how the right to sun bathe, wear beach attire, and still be seen to be behaving ‘respectably’, had to be fought for almost over a century. An excellent and fascinating book that all beach lovers (or even all Sydneysiders) should read this summer.

Raden Dunbar, The Secrets of the Anzacs, Scribe

Caroline Overington, Last Woman Hanged, HarperCollins

Louisa Collins was the last woman hanged in New South Wales. Accused of poisoning two husbands with rat poisoning – the second of which was married soon after the death of her first – this book is horribly fascinating (including grave digging and post-buriel post-mortems) but also illuminates how there was a precursor to the more well-known thallium poisonings by women in Newtown and other areas of Sydney in the 1950s. But it leaves the reader wondering – Why did this mother of six not defend herself (or get a lawyer to) in court against the charges? Both morbid and moreish (if that’s possible)

Other titles Catie recommends are: David Hill, The Making of Australia, Random House; Rob Mundle, The First Fleet, HarperCollins; John Maynard, True Light and Shade: An Aboriginal Perspective of Joseph Lycett’s Art, NLA Publishing; Thomas Keneally, Australians: Volume 3 – Flappers to Vietnam, Allen and Unwin; and Don Watson, The Bush, Penguin Books Australia

Thanks Catie!

But wait! There’s more to read this summer:

Don’t forget The People’s Park: Centennial Park – A History, co-authored by Dictionary board member, Paul Aston with Armanda Scorrano and Kate Blackmore. There’s also a free history walk of Centennial Park you can download and enjoy.

For the inaugural Dictionary, Mary Lightfoot contributed a piece on Louise Lightfoot – Dancer, “An architect who remade herself as a dancer and remade Sydney dance culture in the process.” Mary has now published part 1 of her biography, Lightfoot Dancing: An Australian-Indian Affair as an e-book on amazon au.

The Smile Revolution In Eighteenth Century Paris

And while Kim has been too busy to get to it this year, The Smile Revolution in Eighteenth Century Paris by Colin Jones is on his summer reading list. It sounds like a great piece of cultural history. Who would have thought that French society only learned the art of smiling so late?

Enjoy your summer reading! We have lots to share with you in 2015 so stay tuned!



Me-mel or Goat Island

Posted by Lisa Murray in Blog on December 10, 2014. [No comments]

Goat Island - Place of punishment for prisoners 1841. By Garling, Frederick. From the collection of the State Library of New South Wales a352003/DG*D14, f3, Dixson Galleries

One of the things that Sydneysiders have traditionally done over the summer period, and particularly on Boxing Day, is to descend upon Sydney Harbour and have a harbour picnic. The Dictionary of Sydney has entries on all the harbour islands, so as you travel around the harbour by ferry, or sit on a vantage point waiting for the fireworks, you can find out about the history of all the islands.

Today I wanted to share with you the history of Goat Island or Me-mel.  Goat Island is the largest island in Sydney Harbour, lying to the west of the Harbour Bridge between Balmain and Millers Point. It is a sandstone outcrop and the island covers an area of 5.4 hectares. It stands guard at the entrance to Darling Harbour and it is now part of Sydney Harbour National Park.

Bennelong told the British that Me-mel/Goat Island ‘was his own property’, given to him by his father. For David Collins, who recorded this and many other aspects of Aboriginal social structure in the years immediately following colonisation, Bennelong’s claim seemed to be evidence of Indigenous ‘real estate’. Certainly, there was proximity to the Wangal lands which Bennelong was from.

Collins recorded that Bennelong and his wife Barangaroo frequented the island to feast and ‘enjoy themselves’. Me-mel, or Goat Island, is one of the few islands where a shell midden has been recorded; many others were probably destroyed by lime-burners who exploited the shell deposits. There is only one defined shell midden on Me-Mel, which contains the remains of Sydney cockle and hairy mussel, evidence of harvesting of shellfish and feasting. Me-mel was also said to mean ‘the eye’; and with its prime position in the harbour with views east and west, we can see how this descriptor may have applied to the island.

In 1833 Goat Island was chosen as a safe and suitable place to house the colony’s large stocks of gunpowder, required for public works. Convicts were put on the island to clear the island of trees and build the magazine. By 1837 the powder magazine had been built, together with a wharf and cooperage. The following year the officers’ barracks and kitchen had also been constructed, together with a sentry box, a stone wall around the magazine and a blacksmith’s shop. These remarkable and rare early stone buildings remain on the island today and bear witness to convict period structures and features.

In 1901 the island became the headquarters of the Sydney Harbour Trust, which was set up (in response to the bubonic plague) to modernise Sydney’s wharfage. The Trust was in charge of dredging the harbour and all its tugs, barges and dredges were moved to the island. Later firefighting tugs also used the island as a depot. The Trust kept two scavenging boats. In 1904 the scavenger boats retrieved an astonishing assortment of debris from the water including 2,189 dogs, 1,652 fowls, 1,033 cats, 29 pigs, 9 goats and 1 monkey.  In 1936 the Trust was replaced by the Maritime Services Board.

By the 1940s, Goat Island was home to many members of the Board’s Fire Brigade and their families, and was also the site of the first water police station. There is a music connection with Goat Island, that is worth remembering. Nearly 30 years ago, Midnight Oil performed a concert on Goat Island – on 13 January 1985. The concert – known as “Oils on the Water” – was filmed, and is one of the iconic performances of the band. Goat Island has another popular culture connection. Between 1995 and 2001 Goat Island was the set and location for the popular Australian television drama Water Rats.

Goat Island is now part of the Sydney Harbour National Park and you can explore the history and heritage of of Goat Island on a guided tour.  For more on Me-mel/Goat Island check out the article written by Catie Gilchrist for the Dictionary.   And to answer all your questions about our habour islands as you sit at your vantage point and count down to New Year, take a look at our Islands of Sydney Harbour entry written by Ian Hoskins.

To listen to a podcast of Lisa’s segment with Mitch on 2SER Breakfast this morning, click here.


The Sydney Punchbowl

Posted by lindabrainwood in Blog on . [No comments]

Chinese export ware punchbowl depicting Sydney Cove before 1820, courtesy Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales a281002 / XR 10

Chinese export ware punchbowl depicting Sydney Cove before 1820, courtesy Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales a281002 / XR 10

Nothing says Christmas like punch and last week Lisa and Mitch looked at a very rare artefact held in the Mitchell Library collection…

One of the things I always associate with Christmas is drinking punch. In my family, a big bowl of alcoholic punch is part of the festive celebrations. One of the more unusual entries we have in the Dictionary of Sydney is about a very rare artefact held in the Mitchell Library collection – the Sydney Punchbowl.

This is a Chinese enameled porcelain punchbowl, dating from the 1810s. It’s called the Sydney Punchbowl because around the outside of the bowl is painted a panoramic view of Sydney. And in the bowl’s interior are a grounp of Aboriginal figures. It is quite a substantial piece: the bowl is 45.5 cm in diameter and 17.7cm high.

The panorama has been attributed to John Lewin, Australia’s first professional artist. He was a favoured artist of Governor Macquarie. The original drawing by Lewin is now lost, but the engraving appeared in a publication in 1820. The reproduction of the panorama from a drawing or etching by Chinese ceramicists was common practice, so we’re pretty sure that Lewin’s artistry was the inspiration.

The Mitchell Library’s catalogue entry tells us that punchbowls made in China from the seventeenth century depicting European and American cities are well documented and highly regarded by ceramics collectors. But we only know of two punchbowls that show off Sydney: the one in the Mitchell Library and a companion punchbowl which is held in the Australian National Maritime Museum.  Chinese ceramics were really trendy in the mid-eighteenth century, along with Chinese silk fabrics and sandalwood.

The trend for the Chinese style was known as ‘chinoiserie’, and it spread to architecture, furniture and designs for china, fabrics and clothing. The Sydney Punchbowl reminds us that the town of Sydney, from its very beginnings, was a maritime city and was a multi-national port and destination on Asian and Pacific trade routes. Today’s politicians may celebrate the negotiation of a free trade agreement with China, but Sydney was trading with Canton and India since the 1790s. The Sydney punchbowl is a spectacular rarity that celebrates the newly established colony and our Chinese trade connections. So as you sip on punch this Christmas, remember the Sydney punchbowl, a treasure in our city’s cultural collections.

Lisa Murray

You can read more about the Sydney Punchbowl on the Dictionary here and catch up on last week’s podcast here.

Don’t forget to tune in to 2SER Breakfast every Wednesday at 8:20 am to hear more Sydney stories courtesy of the Dictionary.


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