Looking up - Sydney's history from a new angle


A Walk Through Convict Parramatta

Posted by Linda Brainwood in Blog on October 8, 2015. [No comments]

by Michaela Ann Cameron

Get the Convict Parramatta walking tour with  the Dictionary of Sydney Walking Tours App

Get the Convict Parramatta walking tour on your mobile with the Dictionary of Sydney Walking Tours App

Last year the Dictionary of Sydney released its debut historic walking tour Old Irish Sydney on the free Dictionary of Sydney Walks app. Using the Old Irish Sydney app got me excited about the way multimodal technology has the ability to put “history in the palm of your hand” and transform the everyday urban environment into an outdoor museum, so I approached the Dictionary about being involved in their next app project. Given that I am an “Old Parramattan” myself with at least 7 convict ancestors and a huge passion for colonial history, it was decided that the next app would have a Parramatta theme. Eighteen months and eleven new Dictionary entries later, the walking tour Convict Parramatta is here and available to download for free on Google Play and the App Store.

Thanks to the efforts of the Dictionary team, you will experience Convict Parramatta in all its multimedia glory, with historical imagery, a lively narration by actress Rebecca Havey, and an evocative colonial soundscape.

I was delighted to join Ellen Leabeater on 2SER to announce the official launch of the new walking tour, which has been a real labour of love for me, and to give listeners a little taste of what they can expect.

Convict Parramatta’s release this week has coincided with Parramatta City Council’s food and arts festival Parramatta Lanes. It seemed pertinent, then, to focus on the convict history of a major street the festival goers will be strolling down: George Street, Parramatta.

In 1788, George Street was little more than a track leading from the original landing place on the Parramatta River. However, it was not long before that modest track became Australia’s first planned road and, according to Watkin Tench, a “great” and “very noble” one at that; stretching from the landing place (the Governor’s Wharf) to the governor’s house.

View of Governor's House, Rosehill, Parramatta c1798, Dixson Galleries, State Library of NSW (a928407 / DG SSV1B/3)

Looking up George Street - View of Governor's House, Rosehill, Parramatta c1798, Dixson Galleries, State Library of NSW (a928407 / DG SSV1B/3)

Convict huts, erected in 1790, lined both sides of George Street and extended right into present-day Parramatta Park. The remains of convict huts were revealed in the Murray Gardens only two weeks ago during excavations conducted by GML Heritage for the Parramatta Park Trust. They had been lying beneath a surprisingly shallow layer of soil for 200 years!

Brislington Medical and Nursing Museum, Parramatta March 2014, copyright Michaela Ann Cameron

Brislington Medical and Nursing Museum, Parramatta March 2014, copyright Michaela Ann Cameron

A likely inhabitant of a convict hut that stood on the corner of George and Marsden Streets was John Hodges; an ex-con and sly-grog trader. It is thought Hodges even operated his “disorderly house” in that hut in the early 1800s before his £1000 winnings in a card game at the nearby Woolpack Inn enabled him to construct Brislington—a considerably grander abode—on the site of his old hut. The cashed-up Hodges remained a crim at heart, though. Indeed, he and his convict servant Thomas Lynch were brazen purloiners! Rather conveniently for the opportunistic Hodges and Lynch, the convict hospitals (known as the General and Colonial Hospitals) were located directly behind Brislington, making it easy for the thieving duo to steal a marble slab intended for the hospital’s new mortuary. They subsequently installed it in Hodges’s kitchen fireplace. It was a crime that earned them both a twelve-month prison stay.

What made the theft of the marble slab particularly unpardonable was the fact that, from their inception, the poorly designed, woefully constructed, and malodorous convict hospitals had struggled with properly disposing of the dead. Colonial commentators complained bitterly of the deceased being piled up in hospital passageways or left in the same rooms as the living due to the absence of a mortuary. For this and so many other reasons, Richard Rouse claimed many convicts were “carried [to the hospital] often against their will” while the irate Reverend Samuel Marsden declared, “there was never such a place for want, for wretchedness, for debaucheries, and for every vice.” You will not see those convict hospitals on the tour; but you will see the Parramatta Justice Precinct’s Heritage Courtyard where the hospitals once stood. The Heritage Courtyard is literally an outdoor museum created by architects Bates Smart wherein artefacts recovered from the hospital site during archaeological excavations are displayed alongside images, primary source quotations, and historical information. You will even get to see the partially excavated remains of a colonial cesspit!

View of the colonial hospital in Parramatta c1822 by Joseph Lycett, State Library of Victoria (Acc No: 30328102131561/12 - detail)

View of the colonial hospital in Parramatta c1822 by Joseph Lycett, State Library of Victoria (Acc No: 30328102131561/12 - detail)

The sites and stories mentioned here are just a small section of the first leg of a one-hour walk through colonial Parramatta, which takes you from the Hanging Green (Prince Alfred Park) to God’s Acre (St John’s Cemetery: the oldest surviving European cemetery in Australia) and 11 other convict sites; the Parramatta Female Factory, Parramatta Gaol, Old Government House and the Dairy Precinct in the World Heritage listed Parramatta Park. The secret felonious pasts of even the most innocent and genteel-looking Georgian cottages are also exposed along the way.

Convict Parramatta is the latest but by no means the last Dictionary Walk. Stay tuned for the release of “Sydney Harbour Islands” and “Heritage Randwick” later this year.

Download the Dictionary of Sydney Walking Tour app, and the Convict Parramatta tour on Google Play or the App Store here.

The Convict Parramatta project has been assisted by funds allocated to the Royal Australian Historical Society through the Heritage Branch of the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage.


You can read Michaela’s fascinating entries on Parramatta on the Dictionary of Sydney here and listen to a podcast of Michaela’s segment on 2SER Breakfast here. Tune in again next week for more of Sydney’s history courtesy of the Dictionary of Sydney, on 107.3 at 8:20am. Don’t miss it!


‘With a love like that’: the Beatles hit Sydney

Posted by Lisa Murray in Blog on September 30, 2015. [No comments]

'Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! I'm a Beatle', PIX, 29 February 1964, p8-11

I can’t quite believe it’s been just over 50 years since the Beatles first performed in Sydney but as a new article written by Kim Hanna for the Dictionary records, it was

“at 6.30am on the morning of 11 June 1964, The Beatles flew into Sydney’s Mascot International Airport, where a crowd of 1,000 greeted them. Not everyone was pleased to see them; one mob held up a banner that read ‘Go Home Bugs – NSW Anti-Trash Society.’ Nevertheless, their arrival, along with the new independence of teenagers and various social changes, meant the tour was a cultural phenomenon.”

Contemporary music has a big influence on teenage and popular culture and this can be clearly seen with the impact of the Beatles in Sydney. It was teenagers who idolised the Beatles and screamed their way through their concerts. They played Adelaide and Melbourne, before coming back to Sydney. The Beatles played six shows over three days at The Stadium at Rushcutters Bay, a tin shed that was once a boxing stadium and had terrible acoustics. But you couldn’t hear much, above all the screams.

The Stadium was the city’s largest performance venue, holding 12,000 people, about 6 times the audience of the Sydney Town Hall. It stood on the corner of New South Head Road and Neild Avenue, Rushcutters Bay, but was demolished in 1973 to make way for the Eastern Suburbs Railway.  Just like today, merchandise was all the rage, and where the band made a good proportion of their money. There was  “plastic wigs, autograph books, bracelets, pencil cases, drink tumblers, powder puff compacts, stockings, dolls, scarfs, boots, stickers, posters, serving trays, fans, hairbrushes, face masks, wallpaper and schoolbags. And the fans could not get enough.”

By the 1st July it was all over. The Beatles flew out of Sydney, destination London. Popular culture and music moves Sydneysiders. And as the Beatles sung: “With a love like that, you know you should be glad”.

To relive the Beatles and the popular culture tsunami they created, check out:

You can listen to a podcast of my segment with Nic at 2SER Breakfast here. Tune in again next week for more of Sydney’s history courtesy of the Dictionary of Sydney, on 107.3 at 8:20am. Don’t miss it!



Iris Webber: ‘the most violent woman in Sydney’

Posted by Nicole Cama in Blog on September 23, 2015. [No comments]

'Sensational Incidents At Holmes Shooting Inquest', Truth in Sydney, 13 May 1945. National Library of Australia. News-article169358891 via Trove. Truth, 13 May 1945, p16.

The Dictionary of Sydney has some new content! When you think of Sydney’s dangerous crime queens of the 1920s-30s, the names Tilly Devine and Kate Leigh might come to mind. But there was another woman who earned a reputation as ‘the most violent woman in Sydney’. Her name was Iris Webber – a petty thief and sly grog seller who allegedly carried a knuckleduster and became famous for her dramatic courtroom appearances. I spoke with Nic Healey on 2SER Breakfast about Fiona McGregor‘s fascinating new article in the Dictionary.

Iris Eileen Mary Shingles was born in Bathurst in 1906. She married Edwin Webber in Warwick, Queensland in 1925. In 1932, Iris Webber was placed on remand for two and half months after she shot her husband in the buttocks with her pea rifle. She was acquitted because her husband refused to testify.

By 1933, Iris was living in Glebe and two years later in Surry Hills, at the time described as a ‘locality frequented by drinkers of methylated spirits and criminals of the worst type’. Just minutes from her abode was the beerhouse of the sly grog queen, Kate Leigh, and even closer lived gangster Bill Smillie, who had served five years in prison for a vicious slashing while working for Kate Leigh. Next door was Kathleen McLennan and her close friend, the prostitute Maisie Matthews, who became Iris’s lover.

Bill Smillie, who was also romantically linked with Matthews, was found bleeding on Elizabeth Street one night. He had been shot in each thigh with a repeating rifle owned by Iris. Though McLennan claimed responsibility, claims arose after the case collapsed that the assailant was actually Iris. In the end, Smillie refused to testify; humiliated, he claimed he was shot by a man.

In 1936 Iris spent time at the State Reformatory for Women in Long Bay for minor charges. The following year she was charged for the murder of Alfred (Slim) Maley, another lover of Matthews. Again, Iris used a pea rifle, but was acquitted after spending six weeks on remand.

From 1938 Iris was arrested five times for busking, and in 1940 she was placed on remand for a mugging and spent over a year in gaol for assault. After that point, she sacked her lawyer and began conducting her own legal defence developing an aptitude for legalese. She was described by the pioneering policewoman, Lilian Armfield, as having a ‘brilliant brain’.

During the early 1940s, Iris was selling sly-grog from her house in Woolloomooloo and was raided eight times in six months. She was placed on remand for assaulting Jackie Hodder, a standover man and feared street fighter. Hodder had gone to Iris’s house to extort her before she attacked him with a tomahawk. Hodder withdrew the charges, yet another of Iris’s victims to claim he was attacked by a man.

After this incident, Iris married 65-year-old labourer George Furlong, perhaps to avert attention from her sexuality, something the police had noted, saying she was ‘practising the perversion on lesbianism’. While in gaol for selling sly grog, she filed for a divorce and after her release, she was back in Woolloomooloo with her new lover, Vera May Sariwee. They were both embroiled in a court case; Iris was charged with assaulting a men with a tomahawk while her lover, Vera, attacked his friend. They were both acquitted as the men did not turn up to give evidence.

In her final years, Iris was considered one of the personalities of Sydney. Her dramatic and successful courtroom appearances, accordion playing, violent streak and the fact that she was openly lesbian, secured her notoriety. Her last recorded conviction was in 1952 for contempt of court, after which she died a year later.

You can listen to a podcast of my segment with Nic at 2SER Breakfast here. Tune in again next week for more of Sydney’s history courtesy of the Dictionary of Sydney, on 107.3 at 8:20am. Don’t miss it!


Sydney as Inspiration for Art and Design

Posted by Lisa Murray in Blog on September 16, 2015. [No comments]

Waratahs in staircase window at St Cloud, Burwood. By Douglass Baglin. Contributed by Private collection. By kind permission of the Baglin estate.

There is a great exhibition currently showing at the State Library of NSW called ‘Inspiration by Design‘. It is an international exhibition, touring from the acclaimed Victoria and Albert Museum in London, that that showcases some of the world’s finest book art, graphics, photography and illustration. Alongside this exhibition, the State Library has curated a smaller display called ‘Australian Inspiration‘ which draws upon the Library’s amazing collections to demonstrate how the waratah, the koala and the Sydney Opera House have become sources of inspiration and design.

This got me thinking: Sydney’s landscape, its flora and fauna has been an inspiration for design for thousands of years. We have many articles in the Dictionary of Sydney which touch upon the artistic endeavours of Sydneysiders and the inspiration that Sydney has provided for artistic expression. The sandstone country of the Sydney coastline provided platforms for Aboriginal rock engravings and art which depict local fauna such as whales, sharks, fish, birds and animals. You can read about rock carvings in Bondi and Manly, as well as their contribution to our understanding of Aboriginal life in Sydney before invasion.

Artists’ camps flourished around Sydney Harbour, mainly in the Mosman area, in the 1880s and 1890s, dying out after the first decade of the twentieth century. They developed as a result of the enthusiasm for plein-air painting. Robin Tranter provides a wonderful overview of the camps that hosted artists including Livingston Hopkins, Julian Ashton, Tom Roberts and Arthur Streeton.

Beverley Sherry has written a fascinating article about Stained Glass in Sydney, which is illustrated with stunning photos that really pop on the computer screen. An integral part of Sydney’s nineteenth-century architectural heritage, stained glass was a medium where artists displayed their visions of the colony’s future. Sydney life and ambitions are depicted in all sorts of ways.

Lucien Henry was one designer who designed some stunning stained glass windows for Sydney Town Hall. He came to Sydney in the nineteenth century after being freed from incarceration in New Caledonia for his revolutionary activities in the Paris Commune. He made a new life in Sydney as an artist, teacher and an advocate for native Australian motifs in the decorative arts. He was a particular fan of the waratah.

Margaret Flockton made an enormous contribution to early Australian botanical illustration and taxonomy in her role as the first botanical illustrator at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney. Margaret’s patience, passion for nature and rendering detail matched perfectly with her unique and valuable skills as a lithographer, as hundreds of botanically accurate drawings, lithographs and coloured sketches attest. Flockton is a relative unknown, but she should be a household name! Her work was extremely important in documenting our native wildflowers, among other plants, and the botanic gardens has over 1000 illustrations by her in their archive. We have a beautiful drawing of waratahs illustrating our article in the Dictionary.

If you want to explore the Dictionary of Sydney’s resources in relation to artistic design a little bit more, have a look at the following subject listings which list articles, images and people of artistic interest:

And if you’re into graphic design and illustration, then check out the exhibitions at the State Library of NSW. They’re free and open for just another couple of weeks, until 27 September. Don’t miss out.

If you missed Lisa’s segment on 2ser with Mitch this morning you can catch up here. Tune in next Wednesday morning for more Sydney history courtesy of the Dictionary and 2SER on 107.3 at 8:15am.


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