Looking up - Sydney's history from a new angle


Long Bay prison

Posted by Nicole Cama in Blog on August 26, 2015. [No comments]

Entry for Kate Leigh in State Reformatory for Women, Long Bay Photographic Description Book, 1915. Contributed by State Records New South Wales, NRS 2496, No 188, 3/6007

Long Bay prison opened 106 years ago this month and saw some of Sydney’s most notorious underworld figures incarcerated within its walls. I spoke to Mitch on 2SER Breakfast this morning about its history…

The Long Bay prison complex is significant as the only prison in Australia to be planned with separate prisons for men and women. After it opened in August 1909, it was our state’s principal prison complex for over 80 years. It is situated on a coastal ridge of the south-eastern beachside suburb, Malabar, and was designed by Government Architect Walter Liberty Vernon in accordance with the views of the English prison reformer of the 1770s, John Howard. He believed prisons should be located away from town centres, on the rise of hill and exposed to the elements.

Priority was given to the female reformatory and construction began in 1901. When it opened, the new block, with its Federation Gothic entrance, was praised as one of the few purpose-designed women’s prisons in the world. The daily average occupancy was 124 female inmates, growing to its peak of 199 in 1916. Two recurrent inmates were the famous crime queens of the razor gangs, Tilly Devine and Kate Leigh. By 1937, there were only 42 occupants in the 276-cell women’s section.

The male penitentiary was the first gaol in New South Wales to cater especially for petty offenders. Though it was less elaborate that the female reformatory, it took longer to complete and was opened in 1914. It consisted of six two-storey cell wings, a debtors’ prison, workshop, hospital and observation ward. For the first time, attention was paid to prisoners’ amenities, with cell sizes, electric lighting, ventilation sources and sanitary facilities. A baker’s oven was installed in 1915, beginning a long tradition of bread-making at Long Bay!

There was a an electrified line from 1906 installed to convey materials to the site and until 1950, prisoners were conveyed in compartmented prison cars directly from Darlinghurst police station to the ‘birdcages’ at the entrance block in Long Bay. By the 1920s, the facility was overcrowded and these problems continued until well into the 1960s when it was found that 1,244 prisoners were confined to an area suitable for 815.

From 1968 work began in secret on a maximum security block to be called Katingal. It was designed to eliminate physical contact between inmates and staff and also between inmates and the outside environment. Despite this strict new block, inmates still managed to escape or riot and eventually a Royal Commission was held in 1978 which recommended closure of the facility.

Since the 1980s, additional facilities have been introduced at Long Bay as well as a series of name changes. And enhanced security technology including motion detectors and video surveillance were installed, but this still has not completely stopped inmates from escaping. In January 2006, maximum security prisoner Robert Cole escaped from Long Bay by losing weight, removing bricks from his hospital gaol cell and squeezing his way through the gap in the brick wall!

Read Terri McCormack’s article here.

You can listen to a podcast of my segment with Mitch 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’s ‘pissoirs’ and public lavatories

Posted by Nicole Cama in Blog on August 19, 2015. [No comments]

Black and white photograph of public lavatory in Taylor Square, Sydney, taken about 1934.

Men's convenience, Taylor Square c1934. Contributed by City of Sydney Archives 020262, NSCA CRS 538, Cleansing Department photographs, 1929-1939

It’s a thing we all need, take for granted and is perhaps one of the more awkward topics to discuss, but when did Sydney first see public lavatories in its streets? I spoke to Mitch about it on 2SER Breakfast this morning, exploring Christa Ludlow’s fascinating entry, Public Lavatories,  in the Dictionary of Sydney.

During the late nineteenth century social concerns were raised about public respectability, health and hygiene, and certain undesirable behaviour was being witnessed in Sydney’s streets. It was not uncommon to see men urinating in public because of an absence of public toilets throughout the city. A number of urinals or ‘pissoirs‘ were installed in busy spots in the city during the 1880s, they were above ground and quite flimsy! One of these pissoirs can be seen today in The Rocks, underneath the Sydney Harbour Bridge, which was originally located on Observatory Hill.

When bubonic plague hit Sydney in 1900, it became clear that many houses in the city’s inner urban areas had faulty sewerage connections and others had none at all and relied on earth closets and cesspits. The first underground public loo (for men only) opened on 24 May 1901 in Moore Street, between Pitt and Castlereagh streets.

There were others on Darlinghurst Road and at the intersection of Liverpool and Oxford streets, and finally one for women in Parker Street. One lavatory installed in George Street was the first to use fire clay urinal ranges which were considered more sanitary. One built on the corner of Bourke and Forbes streets in Darlinghurst in 1907 still survives today and was used as part of an art installation back in 2012.

In 1902, members of the Women’s Progressive Association waited on the Lord Mayor, requesting more ladies’ public toilets be installed. A contract for the first ladies’ above-ground lavatory was finally entered into in September 1910, for construction in Hyde Park. The toilet had fewer conveniences than the men’s lavatories and by the end of 1914 a council publication revealed only £1,064 was spent on women’s public lavatories while more than £15,000 was spent on public lavatories for men. One man wrote to the Lord Mayor in 1917, commenting on the ‘wretched state of affairs’ and ‘eternal shame’ that ‘the men are amply provided for…but a woman…is placed in a most awkward position’.

Plan of underground public toilet at Macquarie Reserve c1907. Contributed by City of Sydney Archives, CRS 569/P425.

The toilets were opened from 5am until midnight with two attendants working daily shifts each at each and eight attendants employed in total. It seems many of these early public toilets had quite an ornate appearance with white glass tiles, concrete floors covered with ‘arkilite’ or ‘ironite’ paving and polished wooden doors.

The early public toilets that survive today demonstrate Sydney’s urban street life at the turn of the twentieth century. There was a desire to remove personal activities seen as undesirable from public view but these underground facilities also reflected improvements in the city’s sewerage systems. The toilets today have come a long way with self-cleaning lavatories above ground in places such as Wynyard and Hyde parks.

You can listen to a podcast of my segment with Mitch 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!


Harriet and Helena Scott

Posted by Lisa Murray in Blog on August 12, 2015. [1 comment]

Antheraea Eucalypti 1851. By Scott, Harriet. Contributed by Biodiversity Heritage Library (Plate 1 from 'Australian Lepidoptera and their transformations drawn from the life by Harriet and Helena Scott; with descriptions, general and systematics, by AW Scott', London, 1864)

Have you done your family history? Well, I must confess that although I do historical research every day, I haven’t yet embarked on tracing my family’s history – although others in my family have begun this absorbing project. But this month is the best month to get started. August is National Family History Month. Here are the Dictionary we’re very aware of how family relationships, connections and businesses build up our communities and are an integral part of Sydney’s history. Today I thought I’d highlight the contribution of two sisters – Harriet and Helena Scott. Their full exploits are documented in a recent article for the Dictionary by Catie Gilchrist.

Harriet and Helena Forde (nee Scott) were the foremost natural science painters in New South Wales from 1850 until turn of the century, despite being born in an age when female scientific education was limited, women’s ‘gifts’ were to be kept in the private sphere of home and hearth, and the professions were a male preserve. In Australia, as in England, the study of natural history was the pursuit of gentlemen, for whom amassing a collection was a status symbol. Yet, through prodigious talent, Harriet Scott and her younger sister Helena became esteemed as professional artists, brilliant natural history illustrators and meticulous specimen collectors. Contemporaries hailed their contribution to late colonial natural science, yet they were mostly forgotten until the twenty-first century.

The Scott sisters’ father was an entomologist and a trained artist with a lifetime interest in natural science, as well as being an entrepreneur and grazier. Alexander Walker Scott inherited his passionate curiosity for botany and entomology from his father, Dr Helenus Scott, a physician and botanist who worked for the East India Company in India for thirty years. This familial legacy shaped the trajectory of the Scott sisters’ personal and professional lives. Their family background, particularly on the mother’s side, is also fascinating, and shows how the line between respectability and social outcast could be a very fine line.

The most famous work by Harriet and Helena Scott is Australian Lepidoptera and their Transformations. Although the work was not published in London until 1864, it was completed in 1851 when the sisters were only 21 and 19 years of age. Their manner of working together made the Lepidoptera paintings both remarkable and exceptional, for they combined accurate scientific detail with stunning visual appeal. Their illustrations were completed with the aid of microscopes to capture the exact colour, texture and details of tiny body parts. They depicted the life cycle and host plants of each species and often included background landscapes, such as familiar locations in and around Sydney, which revealed further information about the habitat of the insects. These landscapes were executed in black pen and ink wash or light colours, to contrast with the vibrant colours of the insects. This contrasting technique was unique to the Scott sisters; few contemporary natural history illustrators at the time used such backgrounds in their work. The Australian Museum has all of their paintings and you can browse through these gorgeous scientific paintings using one of my favourite apps – The Art of Science App.

Coming up next week…

National Science Week kicks off this Saturday, the 15th August, which is another reason why I chose to talk about the Scott sisters today. And, of course, being the good cultural collaborator that we are, the Dictionary of Sydney is participating in National Science Week. Author, media producer and historian Catherine Freyne will be talking about another remarkable woman – Florence Violet McKenzie, an electrical engineer who taught thousands of women and World War II soldiers to use radio for signalling, founded The Wireless Weekly magazine and pioneered technical education for women. Grab your free tickets to hear Catherine next week on Thursday afternoon talking about The Electric Violet McKenzie.

The Electric Violet McKenzie. Catherine Freyne for the Dictionary of Sydney. Thursday 20 August 2015, 3.30-4.30pm. Benledi House, 186 Glebe Point Road, Glebe. For free tickets, email: info@dictionaryofsydney.org

If you missed Lisa’s segment this morning, you can catch up here. Don’t forget to listen in next week on 2SER Breakfast with the lovely Mitch Byatt to hear more Sydney history.


Elizabeth Kata: An Australian in Japan during World War 2

Posted by Nicole Cama in Blog on August 5, 2015. [1 comment]

MRS. S. KATAYAMA, wife of a Japanese pianist, and her son, David, 19 months, have arrived in Sydney from Tokio. Mrs. Katayama, formerly Miss Betty McDonald, of Sydney, intends to spend several years in Sydney. She wants her son to grow up an Australian. The News, South Australia, 4 March 1947, p 1. National Library of Australia via Trove, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article127072368

It’s 70 years since the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan. As the bombs fell and killed an estimated 250,000 people, the Sydney-born author Elizabeth Kata was interned in the mountain resort village of Karuizawa. The Dictionary of Sydney has more about her amazing story of love in a hostile world and her attempts to fight racial intolerance, an issue that continues to be relevant today.

Elizabeth Kata was born Elizabeth McDonald in 1912 and spent most of her life in northern Sydney. In 1936, Kata met the Japanese concert pianist and her future husband, Shinshiro Katayama, while he was studying in Sydney. Her family encouraged their relationship and by the following year, the couple were living in Tokyo, Japan.

Before World War II, Kata experienced a privileged life in the bustling capital city, however, after Pearl Harbour was attacked in 1941, her situation changed dramatically. According to Damian Kringas’s article in the Dictionary, of the 41 Australians interned in Japan, it is believed there were only two women – one of them was Kata. She initially spent time teaching English in a high school, but as conditions deteriorated, she and her husband were moved to the mountain resort town of Karuizawa. In an interview in 1963, she said ‘those four dreadful years taught me how to appreciate peace and to hope that one wonderful day the world will really be peaceful’.

Though they were safely tucked away from the major cities, the winter was harsh and the food supply dwindled. Then, three weeks before the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Kata gave birth to her son David. She would later tell the Australian press she received no help from the Australian government in her desperate predicament.

In 1947, Kata managed to return to Sydney with her son David. Their return was reported widely, with many Australian newspapers reflecting the hatred felt for all things Japanese. Some made pointed remarks about her son’s appearance, describing him as ‘dark -haired’, ’dark-eyed’ and ‘olive-skinned’. Others made more overt racist and offensive remarks and in the time that followed their return, Kata would campaign to have her son become an Australian citizen.

Her first novel, Be Ready with Bells and Drums, was written from her Mosman home in 1959, and details the story of a blind girl who falls in love with an African American man. Her book became very successful, was published in different languages and adapted into an award-winning film called A Patch of Blue (1965). Although she was the first Australian writer to have a work adapted to an Academy Award-winning film, Kata did not receive significant royalties for her work.

Kata continued to write for film and television both in Australia and overseas. Two of her books were directly influenced by her experiences in Japan. She and her husband never reunited, though they remained close and she regularly travelled to Japan. Kata died at her Sydney home in 1998. Her famous first book was used in schools in Australia and the United States as part of a curriculum aimed at developing racial tolerance. She said in 1963: ‘I’ve always thought very deeply about racial intolerance, to me its the greatest pain and greatest sorrow in this world today, worse than anything that ever has been’. Her words ring true, even today.

Further reading

You can listen to a podcast of my segment with Mitch 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!


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