Rambles Through Sydney – Part I – The Rocks – 1864

First published in the Sydney Morning Herald between 12 May 1864 and 15 July 1864. In this series the authors take the readers on a journey through the streets of Sydney “beyond the line of handsomely built houses, and off the well kept streets, to show them the nooks and crannies into which they themselves have never penetrated, to make them acquainted with the abodes of poverty, of misfortune, or of crime.”

It is a strange thing, when you come to think of it, that persons will live for years in a large city and yet know very little about it. They move in a kind of prescribed circle, within the circumference of which their business is transacted, and they are actually unacquainted with anything beyond it. Talk to them of portions of George-Street, Pitt-street, King-street, or some other equally frequented thoroughfare, and they will tell you every house. They know who lives next door to Smith, and that Brown’s office is three houses from Thompson’s; but speak to them of the Rocks of Blackwattle Swamp, of the closely packed nest of houses between Sussex-street and Darling Harbour, and they know nothing of them. You are telling them of an absolute terra incognita. Then, again, there are hundreds who know nothing of Sydney after dark. They arrive in the city from their pleasant out-of-town residence to commence their business in the morning, and leave it again for home before the shades of evening fall, or the gas is lit. To these persons Sydney city seems pleasant enough; nothing appears wanting; and they have a firm impression that Sydney is a model city, that all her ways are pleasant, and that nothing can be better than her general social arrangements.

It is to open the eyes of some of these persons to the actual position of affairs – to take them beyond the line of handsomely built houses, and off the well kept streets, to show them the nooks and crannies into which they themselves have never penetrated, to make them acquainted with the abodes of poverty, of misfortune, or of crime, that we have commenced our rambles through Sydney, and that we lay the result before our readers. We propose to narrate facts only, and to state simply what has come under our observation. By timing this, we hope to be able to furnish suggestive material for future remark or discussion and by showing the evils as they really exist to give the best positive chance of applying the remedy.

With these few remarks, as to the purport of these papers, we take our first ramble on the Rocks. It is entitled to this place of precedence from the fact that it was the first, thickly settled part of the city. According to the legends that may even now be heard from ” the oldest inhabitant,” that unfortunate individual who is usually represented at remembering nothing, but whom we now introduce in an entirely new character – the first settlement was made on the banks of a beautiful running stream that emptied itself the Sydney Cove. The place of that delicious rivulet, whose bright glancing waters caused the spot to be erected for planting the germ of the future city, is now usurped by Pitt-street sewer, which, for a great part if it’s northern length, runs along the bed of the old tank-stream. From this point the settlement spread westwardly round the head of the Cove, whose high watermark at that time reached very nearly to Bridge-street, as the flood-tide worked up the bed of the creek, and many of the older natives of Sydney can remember bathing there. The heavy timber that lined the long gulley in the bed of which the stream ran, caused the higher and less wooded hill, now known as the Rocks, to be preferred as a place of settlement, and thus before long this spot was taken up and built upon. Immediately at the foot of the hill were all the public offices, the gaol commissariat, &c., and the main guard-house stood in George-street, nearly opposite to the spot where this journal was so long published. The George-street barracks, which have now disappeared, were then out of town; the city however, in its onward progress has not only overrun the site of the old barracks, but its suburbs are already extending in the direction of the new barracks, and bid fair soon to surround them also.

We pass first up Essex-Street. This was not very many years ago known as Gallows Hill, for at the corner of this and George-street stood the old Sydney gaol. In those days this precipitous street was well named, for the gallows was then almost a permanent erection. The old English laws were savage and bloodthirsty enough of themselves, prescribing as they did the punishment of death for offences that are now treated more mercifully; but the penal code of a convict settlement, such as New South Wales then was, went far beyond even the stern code of Britain. Thus it happened that the death punishments were so often inflicted, that the street in question, which then skirted the side of the gaol wall, and up which gaping crowds would mount in order to see from a good vantage ground the tempting spectacle of strangulation that the law had provided for their amusement or their warning, as the case might be, obtained the name of Gallows Hill. At the right-hand corner of the street, where it joins George street, and where, as we have said, the old gaol once stood, is a row of small houses, built of materials of various kinds, wood, brick, stone, iron, tin, zinc, but not one of them erected solely of any one of these articles. The ground behind them rises rapidly, being backed by a sheer face of quarried sandstone, down the sides of which come a continuous ooze, the natural draining of the soil, commingled with an artificial surface drainage of the soapsuds, slops, &c., of domestic life. The inhabitants of the houses above have discovered that the readiest way of removing the nuisance from their own doors is to run it down the face of the rock in their front, leaving their neighbours below to deal with it in their turn. The neighbours below of course know nothing about the matter as the deposit is made upon land far behind them, and with which they have no concern, until the first heavy fall of rain; and then the soapsuds, &c, which in the interim has assumed a partially coagulated form, is swept away down the sloping ground under and wry often into the kitchens, bedroom, and shops of the houses in front; and the passers along this part of George-street, after a heavy downfall have often to pick their way through a stream composed in about equal parts of water, cinders, and odoriferous refuse.

A little further up the hill, but on the opposite or southern side of the way, there is a lane, running between George-street and Harrington-street, at the back of several very tall and dilapidated houses that face George street. These houses have an ill-repute, and have been given up to the Chinese. Whether from being infested by rats, or whether from being badly built, we are not prepared to say; but they have never been favourably looked upon from the first day of their erection. There was a legend of their being haunted, even before the brutal murder of the collector Warne by the Frenchman Videl. Of course, this deed at once took away the character of the houses for good and all, and they sank lower and lower, till now they have been made over entirely to the Chinese, and there is no more talk of the ghosts.  Certainly, if they were decent respectable English ghosts who when in life had been brought up in respectable English families, they would never have been able to persist along in haunting a house in which Mongolians were located. It is a fact, an unmistakable fact, that has been proved by dozens of trials, that you can tell a Mongolian lodging-house at least a dozen yards before you come to it, by the peculiar smell that exudes from it. This is a kind of complication of very unsound dried fish, bad cheese, opium, and burnt pepper. How the latter smell gets into the complication we are at a loss to conceive, as we are not aware that the Chinese are in the habit of burning this condiment; but we have a pretty good recollection of the peculiar smell, having been upon one occasion subjected to its influence for over two hours. This back lane then, which is not named on the city maps, is a very Mongolian hotbed. It not only smells of Chinamen but would almost seem to breed them, for it is the only spot in Sydney where we have seen a juvenile Celestial. The fish flavour prevails here over every other, for it is a favourite curing ground for the Mongolians, and you may at times see this ever-busy race, stretching their lines in every direction over the piece of vacant ground between the backs of these houses and Harrington-street, not to hang out clothes – no, certainly not, but to hang out fish. Unluckily, however, these people are not so cleanly as they are frugal, and the refuse of the fish which they hang out in large numbers for the purpose of preserving by sun-drying, is left to feed the cats and taint the air, both of which it does to the fullest extent, and the more so as the lane is but ill-drained.

Looking south-west across Sydney Cove to The Rocks, with Mariners Church, north George Street, in centre

Sydney Cove no.2 from Fort Macquarie (1859) [Looking south-west across Sydney Cove to The Rocks, with Mariners Church, north George Street, in centre]; William Hetzer, fl. 1850-1867. Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.

When we reach Harrington-street we turn south-wardly down that street and find it remarkably clean and well kept. There has been a heavy shower of rain during the night, and but little traffic on the street since then, and consequently the roadway looks as if it had been carefully swept in preparation for our visit of inspection. There was a suspicious looking tumble-down wooden building on the west side of the street, behind which I could observe vegetation of some kind. It had a gate leading into a dank unwholesome backyard strewn with broken bottles, brick-bats, iron hoops, and small cinder heaps, through which diminutive creeks threaded their way until they joined each other, and disappeared somewhere under the house, which was much below the roadway. We were about to look over this gate but were prevented by the sudden appearance of the tenant, who finding that we were neither the “Water” nor the ” Sewers,” at once concluded that we had no business “a poking our nose into other people’s places,” and in language more forcible than elegant, desired us to pass on. It need hardly be said that we complied with this request, as our object was not to risk a scene, but to gather information. And here we may say at once that as far as we have yet gone we have been regarded by the dwellers in these out-of-the-way places with an eye of unmistakable suspicion. Venturing as we do into cul-de-sac-into unfrequented and untrodden by-ways where the paletot and the black hat of fashionable resorts never penetrate – the whole population seems at once to rise up in arms, as though for mutual defence against an invading foe. Women, in every stage of dress and undress, rush as by a common signal to their doors, and question each other upon the unwanted phenomenon. We have been, represented, according to the different ideas of the individuals, in a variety of characters. The most generally prevalent idea was that we were “Taxes” of some kind or other, or Taxes that were going to be imposed in some new form. The next favourite idea was that we were a large capitalist looking out for a safe and paying investment for our spare funds. Then we were a detective, who, of course, wouldn’t find anything wrong in that neighbourhood. Next, we heard it suggested that we ourselves were “wrong,” and that we were some fraudulent clerk, looking for a safe asylum; and some evil-minded females actually suggested ”swell mob” and recommended their neighbours in unmistakably loud tones to “look after the lines.” In the face of discouragements such as these, it is that we have pursued our rambles. It is of no use to assume an air of nonchalance and to pretend that we were only endeavouring to make a short cut. It would not do, for the female residents, and there seemed to be none others, the males being, dauntless, absent at their day’s work, would come out and stare after us, and compare notes, comments, and ideas with each other.

Having thus relieved our mind of this grievance, we turn up Church-hill, and, passing Gloucester-street for the present, enter Cumberland-street. We must acknowledge that the Corporation have put this street into very good order; and if the owners of private property abutting on it would only second the efforts of the municipal body, as they ought to do, every cause of complaint would soon be removed. There are some very doubtful-looking places in this street, on both sides of the bridge that crosses Argyle-street; and it might, perhaps, be as well for those who have the authority to inspect these back yards to take the opportunity of doing so. As they were only to be reached, or even seen, by going through the house, we are unable to pronounce an opinion upon them, further than to say that the general damp, unwholesome appearance, suggested to our mind an insufficiency of drainage from the rear.

A rather handsome stone arch has been thrown across Argyle-street by the corporation, in the place of the old and unsafe bridge that a short time back connected the two portions of Cumberland-street. It rivals, in general appearance, the substantial bridge across Prince-street, and bears recorded on its front the name of the Mayor in whose year of office it was erected: thus these works have been made doubly serviceable, first, by their utility; next, by their handing down to posterity in letters of gold names that might possibly have been altogether forgotten in the course of a very few years had they had not been deeply chiselled in the civic stone. It may not be amiss to mention here, that the civic authorities have also removed the very dangerous foot-bridge that ran across the Argyle-street cut from the end of Gloucester-street, and that they have replaced it with a brick arch that allows the passage of vehicles across it. On this again, the name of another Mayor figures in letters of fast-fading gilt.

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As we come towards the end of Cumberland-street we reach a number of very fine large houses on the eastern side of the street. These buildings are so far peculiar that they have no back yards; the only yards or areas belonging to them being in front, and consequently perfectly well kept. Stables, outhouses, &c., are also all in front. The back of these buildings abuts on a narrow lane, which we believe is intended to be a continuation of Gloucester-street; but as the rocks have been quarried down to within a few yards of these houses, leaving a very broken and doubtful track, no thoroughfare for vehicles exists here. This lane is some five-and-twenty or thirty feet lower than Cumberland-street, and consequently, the houses, which in the street appear to be only two stories high when seen from the lane are found to have two additional stories. These two lower stories seem to be given up to the domestics of the different establishments, to coal-holes, cellars, &c.; but the thing that most regards the public is that, in thus abutting on the lane or street, the domestics of the various houses have come to regard the lane as their common back yard. Clothes-lines are hung across in every direction like huge webs to catch the unwary traveller, or sheets, tablecloths, or other domestic articles flap about in pursuit of the errant straggler, threatening him with their moist unpleasant contact. But this is not the worst, for heaps of cinders and household refuse of every kind are thrown out here, the greater part of which are swept down into the cesspool that has been most accommodatingly made for them in the old quarry, before alluded to, and which lies near the end of George-street, on the western side of that street, and facing the wall of Campbell’s garden.

In addition to the rubbish, &c. thus swept down into this doomed corner, drains take down into the same reservoir all the slops, – and by this term, we mean all the refuse water employed in culinary and domestic use – from the houses above. Besides this, there is a constant drainage from the rocks, and the green unwholesome ooze may be seen slowly forcing its way through the crevices, to join its poisonous matter to the miasmatic conglomerate already collected below. Of the stink of rubbish thus formed we shall say nothing, since a professional opinion upon it could be given by the City Health Officer, and would be far more valuable than ours.

Sources:

  1. Rambles Through Sydney (1864, May 12). The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954), p. 2. 
  2. Sydney Cove no.2 from Fort Macquarie (1859) [Looking south-west across Sydney Cove to The Rocks, with Mariners Church, north George Street, in centre]; William Hetzer, fl. 1850-1867; Courtesy: Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

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