Looking up - Sydney's history from a new angle


Sydney Harbour islands

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

Cadet Ron Whelan from the Snapper Island sea training depot at the wheel of the Canadian five-masted schooner City of Alberni on its visit to Sydney c1940. Image courtesy of the State Library of Victoria, A H98.105/2225

How many islands in Sydney Harbour can you name?

There were once 14 islands in Sydney Harbour - Shark, Clark, Fort Denison, Goat, Cockatoo, Snapper and Rodd islands, Spectacle (two into one), Garden, Bennelong, Darling, Glebe and Berry islands. If you just counted, you’ll notice we’ve only named 13 and that’s because Spectacle island has been reclaimed and formed from two outcrops.

The islands in Sydney Harbour were once the outcrops and the peaks of steep hills and they were basically left uncovered as the sea level rose, between 10,000 and 6,000 years ago, flooding an ancient river valley and forming the harbour that exists today. We also have an inkling about some of the Aboringinal names for the islands. The early colonial record suggests that the islands were called Boambilly (Shark Island), Billong-olola/Be-lang-le-wool (Clark Island), Ba-ing-hoe/Booroowang (Garden Island), Mat-te-wan-ye (Pinchgut/Fort Denison), Me-mel/Milmil (Goat Island), Wa-rea-mah (Cockatoo Island), Ar-ra-re-agon (Snapper Island) and Gong-ul (Spectacle Island).

The islands have a rich history that reflects the Aboriginal, colonial, industrial, scientific, naval and social developments of Sydney. And there are many fascinating facts to discover about what’s gone on at these places. For example, Shark Island sits in Sydney Harbour, just 1km from Rose Bay. In 1945, the first Sydney to Hobart race was launched from its banks. Rodd Island became the centre of scientific experiments in the 1880s to try and control the rabbit population.

There’s been convict hard labour, the water police, shipyards, and picnics on the various islands. Cockatoo Island is pretty fascinating, and that’s one island you can visit, especially with the Biennale of Sydney happening at the moment.

Over the next few weeks we will be looking at some of the different islands and their histories. In the meantime, check out our essay about the islands written by the talent historian Ian Hoskins for the Dictionary and supported by the Australian National Maritime Museum.

And if you missed my segment with Sophie yesterday, you can catch up here.


Sydney’s Royal Easter Show

Posted by Lisa Murray in Blog on April 9, 2014. [No comments]

Lost at the Royal Easter Show, Moore Park 18 April 1938. By Sam Hood. From the collection of the State Library of New South Wales, hood_17093 / Home and Away 17093, Mitchell Library)

Sydney’s Royal Easter Show is the nation’s largest annual agricultural show. For generations it has brought ‘the country to the city’, and it continues to be important, especially for children, in Sydney’s cultural life.

The show dates back to 1823 when the newly established Agricultural Society of New South Wales held the first competitive display of animals and produce at Parramatta Domain. Prizes included the best rams, cheeses and beer, as well as for high performing servants!

The show got a new lease of life when it moved in Prince Alfred Park in 1869. The agricultural grounds at Moore Park were established in the 1880s and the first show at Moore Park was in 1882. The move to Moore Park enabled the development of a diverse range of educational, entertainment and commercial activities at the Royal Easter Show.

The introduction of electrical lighting in 1894, with full electrification in 1916, expanded its operating hours and meant that elaborate entertainments could be held in the evening. While entertainment was always a component of early colonial shows, the move to the Moore Park Showground meant an expansion of amusement rides and carnival attractions.

By the 1930s the event ran for 13 days. In the 1990s the decision was made to relocate the showground and society offices. The first Royal Easter Show held at Homebush Bay was in 1998 – 16 years ago!!

As always we’ve got some great images in the Dictionary, such as the Clyde Engingeering Co pavillion at the turn of the century and the District Exhibits from the 1930s – that’s one of the displays I always have to go and see, along with the cake baking and jams competition, and the wood chopping. Ooh – and I always get a Bertie Beetle showbag!

What’s your favourite memory of the show?

If you missed Lisa’s spot on 2SER breakfast this morning, you can catch up here. Set yourself a reminder for next week – 8:20am, 107.3 – tune in!


Sydney’s whaling history

Posted by guest contributor in Blog on April 2, 2014. [No comments]

South Sea Whalers boiling blubber c1876. By Oswald Brierly. From the collection of the State Library of New South Wales A128893 / DG 366 Dixson Galleries

There’s been more than one shift in the chair this week with our guest historian, Nicole Cama, joining Sophie Ly for Breakfast on 2SER this morning.

In light of the International Court of Justice’s ruling delivered yesterday against Japan’s whaling program, Nicole thought it would be interesting to remember how integral the whaling industry was to the Australian economy during the 1800s when it was our major export commodity. In fact, the main whaling port of Australia at the time was a city that we all know and love – Sydney!

Thanks Nicole for our guest post today.

British whalers and sealers were the most frequent visitors to Port Jackson during the first decade of European settlement. At least a third of the convict transports and store ships sent to the new colony before 1800 were British whalers.

Over time, Sydney became a natural place for British and American whalers to stop in port, as whales would migrate along the east coast of Australia. There was also a real sense that the industry could aid the new colony; American author Herman Melville, who famously wrote Moby Dick, noted that the colony was ‘saved from starvation by the benevolent biscuit of the whale ship dropping anchor in their waters.’

By 1805, the first Sydney-owned vessel set sail to go whaling and the trade reached a peak in the 1830s. Eventually whaling stations popped up in Mosman and even one at the Heads. But just to give you some stats to demonstrate just how major the industry was – by 1850, the commodities exported through this industry amounted to £4.2 million. Sydney alone had a fleet that produced whale oil and baleen valued at £2.6 million between 1825 and 1879.

And it wasn’t just the money made from whale products, which could even include ointments made from whale blubber, that made the industry so lucrative. It provided opportunities for the shipping industry, it employed around 1,300 seamen, the government made money through port charges and customs duties.

Sadly, as Sydney whalers took an average of 81 barrels of whale oil per month during its peak period, the years of wholesale slaughter had a dramatic impact on the whale population.

But on a nicer note, it’s important to point out that Australia completely transformed its attitudes toward whaling. Although it took a long time, in 1979, whaling was totally banned. And so began the country’s campaign to protect the species and as we’ve seen, our efforts have produced some optimistic results.

You can read more about our whaling history in Mark Howard’s article for the Dictionary, Sydney’s whaling fleet, 2011.



Posted by lindabrainwood in Blog on March 26, 2014. [No comments]

Nurses leaving Blackfriars Depot, Chippendale 1919. Contributed by State Records New South Wales, NRS4481_St6674

Nurses leaving Blackfriars Depot, Chippendale 1919. Contributed by State Records New South Wales, NRS4481_St6674

With the threat of winter flu upon us and recent news of an increase in children contracting measles, Tim and Lisa talked epidemics this morning on 2SER breakfast. It is a topic close to Lisa’s mind with her current research into the history of disease in the Redfern and Waterloo areas.

In built up areas, diseases and epidemics can spread rapidly and so they are very much a part of the history of our cites. The Spanish Influenza, a massive pandemic between 1918-19, killed more people globally than WWI – a sobering thought.

Some of the epidemics we’ve had in Sydney include a massive outbreak of measles in 1866, one of several recurring outbreaks throughout the 19th century. From 1866–87, estimates of up to 80 per cent of children in Sydney under the age of five were affected.

What is interesting about this outbreak compared to community responses to the recent rise in measles in children is that it didn’t raise much concern. Measles was such a common childhood illness during summer that it didn’t cause public panic despite the huge numbers of sick children.

A smallpox epidemic in the 1880s, however, was a different matter altogether. Smallpox was considered an Old World disease and was quite contagious. The level of public panic led to the establishment of new hospitals like The Little Bay Sanatorium Coast Hospital (which no longer exists) as well as improvements in quarantine procedures and government responses to dealing with difficult epidemics —all of which came in handy when the Bubonic plague broke out in Sydney in 1900.

Rats in quarantine area, Sydney 1900. From the collection of the State Library of New South Wales A147265 / PXE 94, 265

Rats in quarantine area, Sydney 1900. From the collection of the State Library of New South Wales A147265 / PXE 94, 265

Most people still associate the plague with the Rocks in Sydney but it was actually more widespread, affecting the wharf area around Sydney harbour as well as working class suburbs. In scale it wasn’t huge – around 100 people died – but the public hysteria associated with it meant that it became a social crisis. People still didn’t understand how it was passed on and this led to scapegoating of Chinese and Syrians communities.

The Dictionary has a great article on epidemics by Garry Wotherspoon. Don’t be afraid to read it – it is a fascinating account of how different diseases have impacted on Sydney since 1788. You can read it here.

Stay tuned for more unique Sydney stories with Lisa next week on 2SER when she joins Mitch Byatt who is taking over from Tim Higgins for breakfast.

Thanks Tim – it’s been a pleasure working with you and the Dictionary team wish you the very best for those post-4am mornings ahead.


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