Looking up - Sydney's history from a new angle


The right to vote

Posted by Naomi Parry in Blog on March 25, 2015. [No comments]

Maybanke Wolstenholme (later Anderson) c1890

Maybanke Wolstenholme (later Anderson) c1890. By Mitchell & Co. From the collection of the State Library of New South Wales, SPF P1/A, Mitchell Library

With the NSW election this weekend, we thought we would take a look at the history of voting in Sydney. New South Wales was one of the most progressive states in Australia, and indeed the former British Empire. New South Wales achieved self-government in 1856, and the floor of the Legislative Assembly, in Parliament House, has been the venue for every major debate in the state’s history. It’s always been a rowdy place – the bear pit – and when you consider that, between 1856 and 1900 there were no fewer than 28 ministries, you can get a sense of the pace of change in the period between self-government and Federation.

New South Wales has always had a bicameral parliament, meaning it has a lower house, the Legislative Assembly, and a house of review, the upper house, or the Legislative Council. At one stage the Labor Party’s platform was the abolition of the Legislative Council and Jack Lang was one of a number of leaders who gave that a red hot go, but the institution has stuck around. After 1880 members of the Legislative Council were voted in, and it’s from that point that we can trace the beginnings of what is now a tablecloth ballot paper. The Dictionary has a great image of the first New South Wales legislative assembly from 1880 – of course there were no women.

Votes for women

New South Wales was comparatively early to give women the vote, although it was nearly ten years behind South Australia and New Zealand. Full male suffrage was granted in 1858, but not everyone could afford to run for Parliament until 1889, when politicians began to be paid for their work. New South Wales women only got the vote in 1902, but were denied real political power – they could not sit in the Legislative Assembly until 1918, or the Legislative Council until 1926.  Some of the best profiles we have in the Dictionary are of women campaigners for the vote.

Maybanke Anderson, then Maybanke Wolstenholme, was a self-supporting mother and divorcee who founded the Womanhood Suffrage League of New South Wales. Their mottos were ‘Equality is Equity’ and Tennyson’s lines from The Princess: ‘The woman’s cause is man’s; they rise or sink  Together, dwarfed or God-like, bond or free’. Maybanke was first vice-president and then president during the vital years from 1893 until 1897. Always, for Maybanke, the vote was ‘the kernel of all reform’. She was a writer and teacher, and a lifelong campaigner for the rights of women and children. One newspaper called her “the most intellectual woman in Australia” but I am not sure that was intended as a compliment.

Maybanke Anderson’s allies included Rose Scott, Mary Windeyer, Annie Golding and the inimitable Louisa Lawson. These women were teachers and agitators. Rose Scott, a cousin of David Scott Mitchell, and Mary Windeyer moved in the highest circles, while Louisa Lawson and the teacher Annie Golding were labour activists. They all had slightly different takes on feminism, and politics. Nevertheless, these disparate women united to form the Women’s Literary Society, which was the forerunner of the Womanhood Suffrage League. Maybanke perceived opportunity for women in Federation, so left the Womanhood Suffrage League to form the Women’s Federal League of New South Wales.

Right to vote for Indigenous Australians

There is a common misbelief that Aboriginal people gained the right to vote in 1967 but in point of fact Aboriginal people were always able to vote in NSW, if they wanted to. Few knew they had the right but they were not prohibited from voting if they chose to do so. Aboriginal women gained the right to vote in NSW along with other women in 1902. However, Federal elections were a different matter. From 1902, the Federal Constitution specifically excluded Aboriginal people from voting and only returned servicemen could vote federally from 1949. Aboriginal organisers found it more effective to campaign outside the Parliament. John Maynard has written an excellent article on Aboriginal politics in the Dictionary here. You can read Zoe Pollock’s article on the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders in the Dictionary here.

You can listen to this morning’s podcast from 2SER Breakfast here. Tune in again next week for more Sydney history at 8:20am, 107.3 FM.

Further reading



The Castle Hill convict rebellion

Posted by Nicole Cama in Blog on March 18, 2015. [No comments]

Convict uprising at Castle Hill 5 March 1804

Convict uprising at Castle Hill 5 March 1804. Contributed by National Library of Australia [nla.pic-an5577479

Yesterday our best known Irish pubs were sprinkled with green decorations in celebration of the Feast day for the Patron Saint of Ireland – St Patrick. I delved into the Dictionary of Sydney and found out that 211 years ago, Irish convicts attempted to take control of the city! Historian Anne-Maree Whitaker describes how prisoners staged a rebellion at Castle Hill as the sun set on 4 March 1804. I spoke to Matt about it this morning on 2SER Breakfast.

The Castle Hill rebellion of 1804 originated far away from the Sydney suburb. The 1798 Rebellion in Ireland has been described as one of the most violent events in Irish history, with a death toll estimated at 30,000 people. After the rebellion was quashed over 400 of its participants were transported to New South Wales.

When this new load of convicts arrived on our shores in 1800, Sydney Town’s population was around 2,500 and around 43 per cent of those were convicts. Many of them were concentrated in areas such as Parramatta and Toongabbie and most of the military were stationed in the city with smaller garrisons positioned at these inland settlements.

On 4 March 1804, as the sun set and darkness fell, Irish convicts at Castle Hill staged a rebellion. First, the house of one of the leaders was set alight as a signal the rising had begun. Only a few constables were guarding the 200 convicts in the area and most of those joined the rebels. Led by former United Irish captain and stonemason Philip Cunningham, the rebels raided houses in Castle Hill for weapons.

Cunningham delivered a rousing speech claiming Sydney and Parramatta were ready to be taken. His plan was to further raid settlements for arms and lead them to the Hawkesbury, where they would form a combined force of 1,100 men. They would then return to Castle Hill, capture Parramatta before going to Sydney where they would embark on ships awaiting their arrival and sail home. Cunningham ended his speech with: ’Now, my boys, Liberty or Death!’

At 11:30pm, an alarm was sounded in Sydney Town in the form of cannons firing and the beating of drums. Governor Philip Gidley King and Major George Johnston of the NSW Corps mobilised their forces and at 1:30am they arrived at Annandale where Johnston took command and led them to Parramatta. As a new day dawned on 5 March, Johnston arrived at Parramatta barracks with 100 soldiers. Under a blazing sun the troops pursued the rebels toward the Hawkesbury. When they finally caught up Johnston demanded to speak with Cunningham who responded with the words: ‘Death or Liberty, and a ship to take us home’.

Cunningham insisted on his demands for liberty but while the rebels were distracted, Johnston produced a pistol he had concealed and clapped it to the head of one of the ringleaders saying he would ‘blow his soul to hell’. He then ordered his troops to fire and charge. As the rebels fired back nine of their number were killed with many wounded and taken prisoner. They scattered in all directions and were pursued until nightfall. In the end, 39 convicts were killed; nine rebels were executed in the aftermath. A memorial now stands in Castlebrook Memorial Park, Rouse Hill as a reminder of ‘Australia’s Irish rebellion’.

Learn more about Sydney’s fascinating Irish history with the Dictionary of Sydney’s walking tour Old Irish Sydney. Download FREE on Google Play or the App Store.

You can listen to a podcast of my segment with Matt at 2SER Breakfast and read Anne-Maree Whitaker’s original article in the Dictionary. 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!


We’re looking for an Education Officer

Posted by Jacqueline Spedding in Blog on March 12, 2015. [No comments]


The Sydney Mechanics School of Arts has generously funded a part-time Dictionary of Sydney Education officer for 6 months, one day a week.

The Dictionary of Sydney is looking for a part-time Education Officer, one day per week, for 6 months. So if you have:

  • teaching qualifications
  • an understanding of history education issues and an understanding of the NSW Curriculum and Learning Innovation Centre
  • strong project management and time management skills, with the ability to work independently
  • excellent communications and professional writing skills
  • demonstrated high-level presentation skills

then download a PDF of the position description here and get your application to us by 20th March 2015.


Drag and cross dressing in Sydney

Posted by Nicole Cama in Blog on March 11, 2015. [No comments]

Sydney University Commemoration Day procession 1938. By Hood, Sam. From the collection of the State Library of New South Wales, hood_18217 / Home and Away - 18217

The Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardis Gras parade happened on Saturday and it was just as vibrant as it has been since it started 37 years ago. About 10,000 people and 150 floats spanned five kilometres covering themes including marriage equality and apparently half a tonne of glitter was used to adorn its participants, many of them dressed in drag. So I thought I’d delve into the Dictionary and take a look at Sydney’s history of drag and cross dressing for 2SER Breakfast this morning!

Cross dressing might be an integral part of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardis Gras parade today and indeed one of our most famous films, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, made the world take notice of our city’s drag queens back in 1994. But during the 19th century, wearing the clothes of the opposite sex was considered deviant behaviour.

In 1835, the convict Edmund Carmen was caught by police near Wollongong ‘dressed in a woman’s gown and cape’. He was found guilty of improper conduct and received 50 lashes. However in 1839, police arrested a woman for drunkenness in George Street only to find that she was actually a he. After this discovery they released him without charge.

By the end of the 19th century, the activities of the famous Irish playwright Oscar Wilde had caused a scandal in London and even reached Sydney’s newspapers. They published details about his homosexuality and extravagant dress. One scandal sheet objected to what they called ‘The Oscar Wilde’s of Sydney’ ‘whose presence is advertised by an effeminate style of speech and the adoption of the names of celebrated actresses … and that part of College Street from Boomerang Street to Park Street is a parade for them.’

Despite the strong objections to those who chose to dress in drag on the street, men who donned women’s clothing were more readily accepted as long as they appeared on the theatrical stage. In the early years of World War II, nightclubs featured local stars such as the burlesque performer ‘Lea Sonia’, who would appear in drag at the Diamond Horseshoe Club in Oxford Street.

Despite this supposed freedom, there were some instances which served as a harsh reminder of the intolerance for drag and general homophobic attitudes. In 1942 at the Ziegfeld Club in King Street, ‘accomplished nightclub dancer’ and cross-dresser Harry Foy tried to kiss an American sailor who then knocked him to the ground. Foy tragically died the next day ‘from the effects of a fractured skull’ and his assailant was never convicted.

But gradually, as clubs increasingly featured drag shows during the postwar era throughout suburbs like Kings Cross, Redfern and Newtown, attitudes began to change. And not all drag shows featured feathers and sequins, one satirical show, The Sound of Mucus was a send-up of The Sound of Music and used to play at the Purple Onion in Kensington. Some of these drag performers became stars in their own right, including Carlotta and Carmen. Our city certainly has come a long way since the 19th century and the arrests, floggings and imprisonment of cross-dressers and so-called ‘Oscar Wildes of Sydney’!

Check out Garry Wotherspoon’s detailed article in the Dictionary. You can listen to a podcast of my segment with Mitch at 2SER Breakfast. 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!


Major Government