Remembering the Past Australia

Rambles Through Sydney 1864

Part II — The Rocks cont.

As published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 19 May 1864.

Part two of an eight-part series 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.”

In passing along the back of the large stacks of buildings alluded to in our last, we have entered upon what we conceived to be the continuation of Gloucester-street, and on leaving these in our passage southward down that street, we come to a number of small houses of the primitive colonial construction, perched up on a shelf of the rocks, though even then they are lower than the two streets at their back. There is a kind of rude footpath down from these houses along the debris left heaped up by the quarrymen down to Argyle-street, which, though not a recognised right-of-way is sufficiently often used to make it a dangerous passage. From this point to the new bridge recently constructed across Argyle-street, the houses are of the lowest and the most inconvenient kind, evidently tenanted by persons in the humblest walks of life. The drainage here ought to be most complete, but unfortunately owing to the fall of the ground, these residing at the lower end of the slope get the worst of it since they receive the off-flow from the upper end. However, it all finds its way ultimately either to the old quarry or to the Argyle-street gutters. Standing upon the brick bridge that crosses the last named street, we see how one portion of the surface drainage is disposed of; for as it has been raining for some days previously, and the ground is thoroughly saturated with moisture, the gutters are all rivulets of running water. We hear below us the angry dash of many waters, and had we not the use of our eyes, should be under the impression that we were crossing a cascade. Looking down we discover that the sound proceeds from the flow of the gutter waters from the three streets intersected by Argyle-street. This is carried down from, the drains above to within six or eight feet of the surface of the street below by means of wooden boxes, which, to a great extent, prevent the dispersion of the water, that formerly took place in stormy weather before these boxes were employed; but as the fall is almost straight down the water comes with great force upon the roadway, and during heavy rains when the whole of these gutters are discharging their contents, they make noise enough for a respectable cataract. In addition to these legitimate and orthodox drains there is an almost continual natural drip from the rocks themselves, and as the Cut is sheltered by its depth from the searching rays of the sun, long pendant weeds droop down from the fissures of the rock, and drip water during five months of the year upon the roadway below. In the heat of summer it is perfectly refreshing to walk along in the cool atmosphere that is always to be found here; but in the cold wet winter it is quite another thing, and the entrance into this rock-bound passage strikes a chill upon the wayfarer, whilst the sound of the falling water acting upon the imagination renders the air still more dank and moist than it really is. [* Since the above was written, we found on passing; along Argyle-street yesterday that the wooden shoots alluded to above have been replaced by Iron pipes that carry the gutter water down direct into the sewer.]

Having thus made our reflections upon the bridge, and what we can see from it, we cross it and proceed on our ramble down Gloucester-street. It is narrow, and the houses on either side are small and inconvenient, those on the eastern sides being much lower than the roadway. They are here backed up very closely by the houses of Cambridge-street that runs immediately in the rear. It afterwards opens out into a fine wide street, that has recently been very much improved by the Corporation. With some few exceptions, the houses are very old and are most inconveniently huddled together, in many places for the sake of economising space. There are a few Chinese rookeries here, and we noticed one establishment, not Chinese, in which the process of fish curing was being very actively carried on under the verandah of the house and almost in the street. The odorous nature of this peculiar branch of industry-first drew our attention to the fact. The whole of the eastern side of this street, until we get to Essex-street, has a most curious and disjointed appearance, there being two or three breaks in the line of street, formed by the precipitous descents into Cambridge-street and afterwards into George-street, to which they enter by Globe-street and Brown Bear-lane. Flights of stone steps have been constructed, forming a much more safe and commodious passage than existed only a very short time ago, when the rough steps, where they existed at all, were only rudely cut out of the native rock. As the owners of property on the streets between Gloucester and George streets had to take advantage of the formation of the ground for the erection of the dwellings they have built here, they have, as seen from Gloucester-street, a most strangely huddled appearance, and would almost seem to have been pitched up together just as chance dictated.

Nearly opposite to one of the descents we have referred to is the Old Black Dog Inn, still retaining its old name, and still unchanged from what it was when first erected. This establishment in its day was, perhaps better known than any other route of the kind in the colony, and many are the legends connected with it, that may be heard from some of the very old hands. There has been a very great change wrought in this street, and particularly in this part of it, a change that is very much for the better, for we never remember to have seen it so free from collections of stagnant impurities, as on the occasion of our last passing down it. This much we may say for the civic authorities, that within the last few years they have done a great deal for this part of the city, and if, as we before remarked, owners of private property were made to co-operate with them, by being compelled to make proper and efficient drainage from their land, there would be very little left to desire. A deep drain covered with heavy stone slabs takes the flood water across the intersection of this street by Essex-street, and as the latter street is exceedingly precipitous, it has been paved with stone pitchers, from Cumberland-street down to its junction with George-street. Previously to this being done, every heavy rain tore up the roadway and landed the road metal, and very often the heavy stones on which it lay, in George-street, blocking up the gutters and sink-holes and flooding all the lower side of the street. In fact, on more than one occasion the cumbrous gutter slabs have been torn up by the force of the water, and carried off for a considerable distance, the removal of the metal and the lighter foundation stones, in the first instance, allowing the torrent afterwards to work under and displace the gutter slabs. This evil has been remedied by paving the roadway, and the George-street residents are no longer in danger of being flooded out from the same cause.

Crossing Essex-street there is a deep area at the corner of that and Gloucester-street, to which access is obtained by descending a flight of steps from the former street. Down in this hole, which is twenty feet below the level of the street, is a row of ten or a dozen small houses, built close up against the back of the property in Harrington-street known as Cleeve’s-buildings. The only entrance to these houses is from the front, which looks upon the area, or vacant space between them and the line of street, and which forms a kind of common ground for the use of the inhabitants. An open drain runs diagonally through this piece of land and would seem to be sufficient for the purpose intended, since the area appears dry, and there was no lodgment of water. From this spot to Church-hill the houses seemed to be well kept, and the street itself was excellent.


Circular Quay (c. late 1850s) [Looking east across ship at Campbell’s Wharf to Government House in centre distance]; William Hetzer, fl. 1850-1867. 

State Library of New South Wales.

Once more mounting Church-hill, and this time going beyond Cumberland-street, we turn into Prince-street, which was in as good order as could possibly be desired, nor did we from one end of it to the other, see one spot that called for captious remark. Some of the houses are small, some are old, some have been erected in the old, old days of the colony when they were regarded as almost palatial residences. Now they look but poor miserable places, compared with the residences of our merchant princes of the present day. Houses, like men, or like nations, have their palmy days, their decline, and their fall; and there are here dwellings in which, within our knowledge, some of the leading men of that time have resided, and which were regarded as the most select of buildings; and yet now they have fallen from their high estate, the domestic occasional washing is hung from the verandah to dry in the sun, a board informs you that mangling is done there, on the dirty doorsteps, the open door, the bare-floored hall, and the reek of the tobacco smoke tells you, without the aid of the bill in the window, that there is to be found “board and lodging.” This neighbourhood, once so select that the announcement if a house to let near the Flagstaff was certain to ensure an eligible tenant, has now fallen off in repute, and is no longer eagerly sought after.

A handsome flight of broad stone steps, guarded by an iron balustrading, leads down from the Prince-street Bridge to Argyle street, ending near the Trinity Church, and has proved a great convenience to the inhabitants of this street. There is no outlet from the northern end of Prince-street, some of the properties on the western side of Cumberland street preventing its extension – though, perhaps, very little would be gained by opening it up, since it could only be run into Cumberland-street, the high rocks that have already been extensively quarried on the Fort-street side, preventing it’s being carried in that direction.

We now go up a narrow lane by the southern side of the bridge, and a couple of dozen yards along this brings us on to the Flagstaff Hill, or Upper Fort street. On this hill are situated the Signal Station, the Observatory, and the National School, formerly the military hospital. The Board of National Education have succeeded in making the latter as useful as a school and as a training establishment for teachers, as they have in rendering it anything but handsome as a building In its original state it may not have been ornamental, but it was useful, the deep verandah and balcony around it left it cool, open, and airy, by the changes they have made, the Board have bricked out as much of the light and air as it was possible to do, without leaving the inmates in utter darkness, and absolutely asphyxiating them. Whether it was considered that studies are best entered upon in the dark and that the less fresh air that was given to the students the less animal spirits there would be to interfere with the lessons, we are not prepared to say, but if so, the plan adopted was likely to achieve the end in view. The Signal Station is nothing in particular. It remains, perched up upon what military men would call its redoubt, precisely the same as what it was within the memory of the oldest inhabitant. We appeal once more to this gentleman, because, despite the sneers with which he is always met, we have a most high respect for him. And, talking of redoubts, we believe that the idea struck somebody else that this elevation of the Signal Station for purposes too obvious to need mentioning, assumed a redoubt-able appearance, for the spot was christened Fort Phillip, and a saluting battery was actually erected here. There were only some old 8lb or 9lb carronades mounted here, but the very first salute caused such a terrible smashing of glass in Fort street, Prince street, and the surroundings, that after one or two trials, attended with a similar result, Fort Phillip quietly subsided into no fort at all. The Observatory is a comparatively new building, and looks quite spruce and modern by the side of its octogenarian neighbour; but “all that’s bright must fade.” Of the hill itself, that is – the vacant space of ground, intended we believe as a permanent reserve for public recreation, the less that is said the better. For years it has been altogether neglected, and though latterly something has been done towards levelling it, by carting heaps of rubbish on to it to fill up hollows, it is spongy and springy in many places for want of drainage, and is certainly not the place to which a careful matron would send her children for recreation during the wet season of the year. The northern and western sides of the hill have been very extensively quarried, there being an average sheer descent of about a hundred and twenty or fifty feet. After one or two accidents had occurred, the most notable being the case of a poor little child, who in its anxiety to gather one of the wretched yellow flowers that sometimes makes its appearance here, by miraculously escaping the notice of the herds of goats that frequent the spot, ventured too far and toppled over the precipice, and fell into Argyle-street, where it was picked up a maimed and mutilated corpse after these, the spot was securely fenced in all round, and may now be regarded as safe from all such accidents in future.

A line of houses runs along the eastern side of the reserve, in front of which is a good roadway. Many of there houses are of very ancient date, being coeval with the Station itself, and afford a by no means bad example of what was considered to be good taste in the architecture of former days.

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