Looking up - Sydney's history from a new angle


Women’s Sydney

Posted by Jacqueline Spedding in Blog on January 28, 2015. [No comments]

Five women in Hyde Park c1939

Five women in Hyde Park c1939. 1933 - 1943 By Hood, Sam. From the collection of the State Library of New South Wales, a368031 / PXE 789 (v.38) , 112, Mitchell Library

What was life like for women living in Sydney during the early 20th century? Dictionary of Sydney contributor Delia Falconer paints a colourful picture of bohemian enclaves and the freedom of the city in her essay A City of One’s Own.

From the 1920s, there was a boom in apartment living on or near Sydney Harbour. Many of the Art Deco apartment buildings you see today in areas such as Potts Point used to be Italianate mansions which were then subdivided to accommodate the demand for inner city apartment living.

Apartment living not only changed the face of Sydney’s streets, it also transformed the city into an irresistible social and cultural hub for single women. It offered greater freedoms to women who opted to live closer to their place of work and at the same time, did not have the rigid structure and rules that constrained women living in suburban Sydney. These apartment buildings offered a picturesque haven away from the watchful eyes of family and suburban neighbours. In Tirra Lirra by the River, a novel by Jessica Anderson, the heroine describes the ‘flowers, cats, water, sky, seagulls, ships’  as she looks out the window of her Elizabeth Bay apartment.

This inner city lifestyle also brought the availability of specialty stores such as delicatessens and restaurants, where you could leave a plate before work and pick it up at the day’s end for a ready made meal. Before the introduction of the six o’clock closing  for public bars hit Sydney in 1927, working class women would congregate in the women only lounges of these bars. A refuge away from the rougher side of Sydney’s nightlife were institutions such as the Country Women’s Association hostel in Kings Cross and the Women’s Club in Elizabeth Street, which offered accommodation for women and still exist today.

For many women, the city represented a form of escapism from the humdrum and restrictive life in the suburbs. The city had crowds, street theatre and diversity at every corner. World War II offered women the chance to participate in the life of the city, with increased employment opportunities and social interaction, with servicemen from around the world arriving in droves. Many alarmist novels of the day responded to this new social dynamic, with Dymphna Cusack and Florence James’s 1951 bestseller, Come in Spinner, telling the tale of a young woman who is abducted and raped in a brothel.

Yet despite these tragic depictions, most women writers have spoken of the harbour and living on its fringes as an idyllic and promising experience. Women have also been particularly active in the preservation of the city, with one example being the publisher and activist Juanita Nielsen who campaigned against the redevelopment of Victoria Street in Potts Point, and then mysteriously disappeared in Kings Cross in 1975. Ruth Park summed up the distressing trend of Sydney’s redevelopment during the 1960s. As old buildings were torn down around her, she wrote: ‘Oh, my poor old girl!’ I used to cry…stepping aside to avoid trucks laden with enormous ironbark beams, black with age and pocked with axe marks.’

You can listen to a podcast of Nicole’s segment with Mitch on 2SER Breakfast here. Nicole returns at the same time next week to share more of Sydney’s history courtesy of the Dictionary of Sydney, on 107.3 at 8:20am. Don’t miss it!


Tourist Sydney

Posted by Jacqueline Spedding in Blog on January 21, 2015. [No comments]

Sir Joseph Banks Hotel, Botany Bay 1857

Sir Joseph Banks Hotel, Botany Bay 1857. By Mason, Walter G. Contributed by National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an8021430

It’s summertime in Sydney and with tourists swarming to popular attractions I thought I’d explore the history of tourism in Sydney.

Tourism emerged in Europe during the 18th century when people began to take pleasure in the experience of travelling to new places. From the early convict days in Sydney, the real attraction was the city’s sparkling harbour coupled with the exciting urban hub of the city centre which included gambling dens, taverns, theatres and brothels.

During the late 1800s, notable hotels sprung up around the city to cater for increasing numbers of tourists and regular steamship services began to grace the harbour. By the 1880s, the city had a widespread rail network which took visitors to the Easter Show, for example, and by 1907 the Sydney Morning Herald reported that the show was attracting ‘many thousands of.. hard working folk on the land’ to Sydney’.

The hotels, government-owned railways and steamship companies such as Burns Philp, became the dominant tourism promoters. As a result, resorts and hotels were built to entice day trippers to the city. The Sir Joseph Banks Hotel in Botany Bay was built in the 1840s and included attractions for holiday-makers such as pleasure grounds, dancing, sporting fixtures and by 1850, a zoo! Gardens across the city then sprung up including Cremorne and Clifton gardens.

Manly, Australia's Premier Seaside Resort c1945

Manly, Australia's Premier Seaside Resort c1945. 1938 - 1954 By Manly and Port Jackson Steamship Company. Contributed by National Library of Australia, nla.aus-vn3304093-13x

Manly became a tourist hotspot from the 1850s, and ferry advertising for the suburb displayed the slogan ‘Seven Miles from Sydney and a thousand miles from care’. The ferry services to these areas transformed from a mode of transportation for commuters to one for pleasure seekers, and when the Harbour Bridge opened in 1932 they were converted to ‘showboats’ until the early 1960s.

Cheap tram travel also made it easy for fun seekers to visit various popular attractions at Coogee and Bondi including aquariums, swimming baths, zoos, sideshows and amusement rides. And luckily for beachgoers, a relaxing of surf-bathing regulations after 1902 and introduction of surf lifesavers in 1908 added Sydney’s beaches to the list of leisure activities.

During the late 19th century, Aboriginal people congregated at Bennelong Point, however, they were removed to the reserve at La Perouse. By 1902, the reserve attracted the attention of curious tourists, and the Aboriginal community there gradually developed their own tourist economy, making boomerangs, shields, shellwork and other souvenirs.

It wasn’t until after the World War II that international tourism became a major part of tourist Sydney, as air travel increased in popularity. During the 1970s and 1980s, there was a widespread rediscovery of the city’s past and our best known historic precincts turned into tourist havens, including the Rocks and the Queen Victoria Building. More recently, Sydney’s landmarks the Opera House and Harbour Bridge climb now occupy pride of place in the city’s most visited attractions.

And to finish, a fun fact from the Dictionary of Sydney: In the space of a 60-year period, the number of international visitors to Australia grew from 43,692 in 1950 to over 5.9 million by 2010. Of those, about 2.7 million visited Sydney, making it Australia’s top tourist destination.

For more fascinating facts about tourism in Sydney you can read Richard White and Justine Greenwood’s article on Tourism for the Dictionary of Sydney here.

To listen to a podcast of Nicole’s segment with Mitch on 2SER Breakfast this morning, click here. Tune in again next Wednesday at 8:20am for more Sydney history.


Parramatta Gaol

Posted by Nicole Cama in Blog on January 14, 2015. [2 comments]

Parramatta prison 2009. Image courtesy of Airview, 0905-1317-85

Continuing our focus on this year’s Sydney Festival, there’s an array of music, dance, circus and theatre showing outside the CBD, with Parramatta Gaol being turned into a venue. So today I thought we would take a look at the history of Australia’s oldest and most intact gaol.

The first gaol in Parramatta was built in 1796 near the southern part of Prince Alfred Park and was designed by Governor John Hunter to incarcerate robbers. It was made of double log and thatch, both highly flammable, and it didn’t last long. The building was torched by arsonists in December 1799 and many unfortunate inmates were ‘shockingly scorched’.

In August 1802, construction began on a second gaol on the same site, this time in stone. Supervised by the Parramatta magistrate, Reverend Samuel Marsden, nicknamed ‘the flogging parson’, the building was funded by a tax on alcohol and completed in 1804. On the top floor was a linen and woollen factory where convict women worked in cramped conditions. Floggings were carried out within the confines of the gaol yard, whereas executions were conducted outside for the public to witness. And of course, that age-old instrument of public humiliation, the stocks were placed at the entrance.

Over the next 30 years the gaol deteriorated and became overcrowded. Governor Richard Bourke petitioned the Colonial Office in London for a new gaol. The commanding royal engineer, Captain George Barney, designed it and construction commenced at a new site to the north of the town. Economic depression in 1842 momentarily halted construction, however, a perimeter wall, governor’s house and three two-storied wings had been completed, and it opened on 3 January 1842. Thomas Duke Allen was the first gaoler, and lasted 20 years along with his wife Martha, who was matron for the female inmates.

Extensions were added to the gaol in the late 1850s and 1880s so that by 1897, Parramatta Gaol was the second largest in the colony with 364 men and eight women convicts. By June 1899 double cells were converted to single cells, the prisoners underwent physical drills, a sixth wing was added and even electricity was installed!

Between 1918 and 1922 it was closed briefly and used as a mental health facility. Originally Parramatta Gaol was designed to hold habitual criminals who could be occupied with productive tasks. It went back to this original purpose and by 1929 it had become the State’s leading manufacturing gaol, producing boots, brushes, tinware, clothes and many other useful materials.

Changes were made again in the 1940s and the 1970s. Between 1997 and 1998 the Parramatta Correctional Centre, as it was renamed, closed. In 2004, after over 160 years in operation, the future of the facility was thrown into uncertainty when two inmates scaled the wall undetected and escaped.

During its last years of operation, it was classified as a medium-security short-term Remand Centre, Transient Centre and Metropolitan Periodic Detention Centre. It closed in October 2011 as Australia’s oldest serving correctional centre. Though the gaol has been empty for some time, its buildings remain as a historical remnant of a penal philosophy from long ago and it’s now, ironically perhaps, a stage for one of Sydney’s most popular cultural attractions – the Sydney Festival.

Head over to the site to read more about Parramatta Gaol in the entry by historian Terri McCormack, a prolific and generous contributor to the Dictionary of Sydney!

You can listen to a podcast of Nicole’s segment with Mitch on 2SER here. Don’t forget to tune in next week on 2SER Breakfast to hear more about Sydney’s history on 107.3, 8:20am.


Circus in Sydney

Posted by Nicole Cama in Blog on January 7, 2015. [1 comment]

James Ashton, Ashton's Amphitheatre, 1855. From the collection of the State Library of New South Wales, TN115, Illustrated Sydney News, 2 June 1855

With the Sydney Festival kicking off today I’m sure there are plenty of revellers looking forward to the circus and cabaret acts that will grace the city’s nightlife. But did you know Sydney has a long history with the Circus, dating all the way back to 1850?

The modern circus emerged in London in 1768. The word itself entered common usage as it referenced the open-air, circular riding tracks used by performers. Although these performers were a source of entertainment, they were considered low in the social hierarchy and were labelled ‘rogues, vagabonds and sturdy beggars’. In fact, some of England’s circus performers found themselves on the wrong side of the law and were subsequently transported to Australia, bringing their act to new audiences.

In 1833, two ropewalkers, one a former convict, performed at the new Theatre Royal in George Street, Sydney. And in 1842, the Italian self-named ‘Professor of Gymnastics’ Luigi Dalle Case brought his circus troupe to a purpose-built pavilion in Hunter Street, which consisted of equestrians, ropewalkers, gymnasts, acrobats and clowns. Unfortunately he went bankrupt within a few weeks as competition sprung up across the city.

It wasn’t until 1849 that two key figures in the history of circus in Australia finally arrived in Sydney, after performing in Tasmania. The two equestrians, Golding Ashton and John Jones were known by their stage names James Henry Ashton and Matthew St Leon, and started their careers Launceston.

After performing in Melbourne, Ashton and his troupe travelled from Port Phillip to Sydney, and according to Ashton family legend performed outdoor equestrian exhibitions in a makeshift ring near what we all know as Central Station.

Fellow equestrian, St Leon and his troupe opened in the City Theatre, somewhere opposite what is now the State Theatre in Market Street in January 1850. They featured  tightrope, slackrope, vaulting, acrobatic and equestrian acts. They took their act across the city and beyond, giving open-air performances as far as the Hunter Valley. When they returned to Sydney they opened the first circus establishment in Sydney – the Royal Australian Equestrian Circus opened three nights a week at eight o’clock in a roofless arena in the backyard of the Adelphi Hotel in York Street. For a shilling, audiences could witness the acrobatic and equestrian feats and even, shockingly for the times, short skirts and tights!

The circus industry was a booming business. In 1871, 6,000 spectators gathered at a hippodrome or large oval arena on the Queen’s birthday and experienced a fun-fair, open-air circus performances, and chariot races. In 1913 the Sydney City Council built a 3,000-seat venue in Haymarket for circus performances, ‘The Hippodrome’, which included a mechanism for aquatic displays. Today, we call it Capitol Theatre.

Now many of the travelling Australian circuses were family run, with skills and experience acquired and transferred to each new generation. I was surprised to find out that the author of the Dictionary of Sydney’s entry on Circus in Sydney is Mark St Leon, a descendent of the St Leon circus tradition just mentioned. And the Ashtons are now the oldest surviving travelling circus in Australia, spanning 165 years and seven generations of bringing smiles to Australian audiences.

I think Sydney’s enduring love for the circus is plain when we look at programs like the 2015 Sydney Festival, now often combining art forms in a fusion of circus and cabaret that continue to excite and tickle audiences. I strongly encourage people visit the Dictionary of Sydney to discover in much more detail Sydney’s colourful history and love of the circus.

Listen to a podcast of Nicole’s segment with Mitch at 2SER. Thanks to Nicole for kicking off the new year for us with this terrific post. Tune in next week on 2SER Breakfast to hear more about Sydney’s history, this time with an eye on Parramatta. 107.3, 8:20am. Don’t miss out!


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