Remembering the Past Australia

Rambles Through Sydney 1864

Part III — Woolloomooloo

As published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 26 May 1864.

Part three 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.”

Four-and-twenty years ago that extensive metropolitan district lying to the eastward of the older portion of Sydney, and now occupied by a dense population, was an open valley scarcely reclaimed from, its primeval aspect; still unmistakably the country, in which the Sydney schoolboy could disport in his play hours, or the wearied city artisan, enjoy a mouthful of fresh air on high days and holidays. From the unpolluted sandy beach of the bay-now, unhappily, a thing of the past – to the Old South Head Road, on which not a house was then to be seen, and from the eastern limits of the Hyde Park and the Outer Domain to the few villa residences, more comfortable than stately, that even at that time stood on the eastern heights of this locality, ” The Riley Estate,” as it was called, lay bare in the sunshine, with broad green meadows and ” The Bishop’s Orchard” stretching down over its lower slopes towards the waters of the harbour, its southern hill-sides being composed of declivities and scanty grass plots plentifully clothed with low bush shrubs, wildflowers, and the European gorse or furze, which here grew luxuriantly, exhaling from its golden blossoms a fragrance alike delicious to the newly-arrived immigrant and him to whom the sweet scent was yet familiar after long years of sorrowful expatriation.

In a spot not far from the junction of William-street and Palmer-street stood a large, old-fashioned mansion, surrounded with massive stonewalls, out-houses, and pine trees – the one principal residence of the quarter, built at the commencement of this century, in a substantial manner, of stone, timber, and mortar, spacious enough for the accommodation of a numerous family, and strong enough to stand a siege. In some singularly accurately drawn and well – engraved maps and prints, executed at Paris in 1805, by the order of his Majesty “Napoleon Empereur et Roi,” this house appears as the “Maison Monsieur Palmer,” the founder of a colonial family formerly one of much importance in New South Wales, the memory of which is perpetuated by the name of a long and well-built street turning from South Head Road to the water’s edge. The same old French map of Sydney, which may be found amongst the many ponderous folios of the Australian Library in Bent-street, also delineates the winding course of a streamlet which, beginning somewhere near the gaol in what was once called “Keck’s Paddock,” took a north-easterly direction until it crossed the site of Riley-street, between Stanley and Liverpool streets, and so flowed splendidier vitreo, nearly due north, until crossing the main road now called “William-street (where there was a pont, which did not escape the lynx-eyed French topographer) it finally disembogued in the sparkling waters of the bay. Few things are so permanent as watercourses, for they are formed by the ordinary operation of those laws of nature which have remained everywhere steadfast and immovable since the remote epoch when they were first fixed by the Eternal Mind.

The accumulations of moisture find their level in every place, and are not so easily altered as some persons ignorantly suppose; man may pile acres of stone and mortar on any given area, and excavate or elevate the surface as much as he will, but to change the direction of a watershed in the least degree is by no means so easy a matter. He will often find, to his chagrin, and in contempt of all his engineering forethought, that elaborately-constructed gutters and sewers will turn out comparatively useless, and that waters will soak through solid dams and have a tendency to run over the old slopes where they ran ages ago, before the architect and his busy subordinates were, as the saying is, born or thought of. The truth of these words, trite as they may appear to some, strikes the rambler through Woolloomooloo very forcibly everywhere. The most superficial observer cannot fail to see the evil to which we direct attention; the capricious way in which the natural watershed of the place has been deliberately interfered with by cross streets, new levels, the perverted use of old watercourses, and the total absence of any large underground sewer, or general system of drainage. What is the result? In place of the healthful and invigorating breezes of old Woolloomooloo, laden as they were with the scent of the gorse, we have now, in but too many of the crowded streets-and especially those in the north-east – sickening and indescribable odours generating fever and death; stenches that pervade the air with their pestilential influence – an influence ever increasing in lethal virulence – an atmospheric poison in which the inhabitants live, and sleep, and die. It is truly a matter of astonishment to think that, notwithstanding all the wealth and property and intelligence of the inhabitants of Woolloomooloo, the great sanitary question of an adequate sewerage, and the concurrent advantages of pure, healthful air, should so long have been disregarded. It is unhappily, not merely the state of the unfinished works of the quay that have poisoned the air; in but too many houses, and it is not too much to say in every street, causes are in active operation which are generating gases destructive of comfort, of health, and of life. It is high time for the action of these baleful laboratories to be arrested, or neutralized by some arterial system of, underground drainage throughout the district; one that would terminate in a main sewer of sufficiently ample dimensions, with a good fall out into the bay. It would even then be some time before the Medicean nosegays of Woolloomooloo could be made a matter of history, but their reek would, at all events, not be deadly as at present.

Persons are not only still alive but in the flower of their age, who remember in their truant schooldays to have caught large freshwater fish between William-street and the bay, in the pellucid waters of the streamlet to which allusion has been made. It was only yesterday that a friend of the writer recalled that simple fact with a smile and a sigh. A great change has since taken place, which cannot be altogether a subject of regret. The Bishop’s Orchard – the beautiful grass meadows – the old mansion house, and the furze-clad uplands to the south, have all vanished, and blocks of houses and long dusty streets have gradually replaced the pleasant, well-remembered spot. The change has been what was to be expected – what was salutary; but all our love of progress revolts at the transformation of the pretty sparkling streamlet into a black and stinking ditch, – rolling its fetid waves slowly along, immediately in the rear of densely-populated streets, until it reaches a ” land debatable,” to the left of the corner of Woolloomooloo and Riley-street, of which we shall say more anon. This horrible black ditch has long been the ink in which has been written the death warrants of hundreds of people. It is high time that the sanitarists should array themselves against such a nuisance, never resting until it is built over like the old Tank Stream, and made a channel that can be flushed and cleaned with every fall of rain; until, from being a source of social misery, it becomes, in its humble way, a means of public advantage.

In order that an idea may be formed of the insalubrious area poisoned by this Stygian rivulet, it may be as well to give our readers a brief, rough outline of its actual extent, although the influence of its malaria must of course be felt far beyond its immediate limits. The low lying quarter which is thus more or less infected, and from the absence of all effectual drainage rendered unhealthy, may be defined as commencing from William-street, and extending down Riley-street as far as Woolloomooloo-Street, where “you shall nose” the nuisance in its most palpable and offensive form. From the corner of Woolloomooloo-street, at the foot of the hill coming down from St. Mary’s, if you walk down as far as Forbes-street, you will be on the southernmost limit of the land in which drainage appears to be unknown, and where sewage must per force accumulate. From Forbes-street the sanitary cordon may be said to branch off somewhere about Stephen-street, and from Stephen-street into Dowling-street, and from Dowling-street to the newly-formed boundary of the Bay.


Macquarie Street South (1859) [Taken from corner of Hunter & Macquarie Streets, looking south. St. Stephens Presbyterian Iron Church on left]; William Hetzer, fl. 1850-1867. 

State Library of New South Wales.

The entire area thus designated is bounded on the westward by a wilderness of filth, in which the Domain here terminates; and on the north by the shores of the bay, now undergoing a rapid alteration by the extension of the land in that direction. In this wide, flat, and undrained locality are comprised – in addition to such portions of the larger streets as have been already mentioned – Broughton-place, Campbell-place, Junction-street, Bay-Street, Charles-street, Charles-lane, Alfred-street, Stephens-street, Griffiths-street, Susan-lane, Nicholson-street, , Cypress-lane, Quay-street, and many other smaller streets and lanes, courts, and alleys, of which it is impossible to find any distinguishing name, or to give any adequate description. In several of these streets commodious houses, respectable homes, and tolerably well-provided shops, evince the presence of an industrial population, whose health ought to be better protected by the municipal powers; people whose physical energies ought to be well cared for as forming an important item in the future prosperity of this community. Into how many of these dwellings, however, the Angel of Death enters unbidden, as the avenger of a common-sense neglect of one of the first orders of nature, it is in vain to speculate. After working hard all day, the tired labourer and exhausted artisan here, it is to be feared, too frequently imbibes, during their brief hours of repose, a noxious atmospheric poison, which, in one shape or another, will develop itself with a malignity baffling the patient skill of the physician, separating ties that God and man have consecrated, and leaving young families in poverty, and unprovided widows with infants to add fresh difficulties for the solution of those gloomy social questions, which are the grief and sorrow of the Christian, and the despair of the philanthropist. In several of these streets, a darker and sadder state of things may possibly obtrude itself upon the rambler’s notice, and he will be forcibly reminded of the terse saying attributed to Wesley – “that cleanliness is next to godliness,” and draw his own corollaries from that well-known aphorism.

There is a sort of inseparable connection between filthy, uncomfortable houses, together with the physical depression of their inmates, and the hydra-headed forms of vice. Stimulants become almost necessary under such circumstances, and the practice of taking such stimulants leads, of course, to all the evils which are the concomitants of intemperance – to improvident habits, to self-neglect, to disease, social depravity, and death. Much of what is here mournfully deprecated might be obviated if the authorities would but be wise in time, and avert the “causa tanti mali,” which they overlook in its origin. Well-ventilated residences, well-made streets, and a rigid system of underground drainage for the necessary purposes of every dwelling into a main sewer would soon be found to be the cheapest and best mode of elevating the industrial classes, and of preserving to them that moral tone and physical stamina upon which so much depends. It is in vain that the church-going bell sounds every week-in vain that the religious teacher goes forth into the highways and byways if the comforts of the poorer classes are in these respects neglected. Conjugal faith, the innate modesty and innocence of girlhood, – health, happiness, and comfort of every kind, are all endangered if the residences of the lower classes are not what they ought to be – commodious, well-ventilated, and clean. But too often in this city, the facts brought before the Coroner are such, that the jury are compelled to declare the residence of some unhappy person, deceased, as being totally unfit for the habitation of any human being. It were well if this were altered, and that soon; and a judicious commencement might be made in that undrained level in the lower part of Woolloomooloo which has led us into this digression.

The North-eastern side of Woolloomooloo affords a striking contrast to the locality we have just been speaking of. Perched on the rocky heights, aristocratic stone mansions are there grouped together by hundreds, with gardens and pleasure grounds here and there, and even well-kept streets. In the calm and undisturbed seclusion of Macleay-street and Wylde-street, we see, as far as high stone walls and umbrageous foliage will permit us, how the merchant princes of Sydney and the representatives of our old colonial families are there accommodated, and we can appreciate the good taste and enterprise which has caused the outlay in this country of their accumulated capital. From the new densely populated and well-built quarter which reaches from the houses along the heights to Rushcutters Bay, the atmosphere is as pure as the population is wealthy, and there are few, if any, back streets. Below the rocks, in a narrow and precipitous area, occupied by Broughton-street and Duke-street, the character of the locality is in every way very different, the houses being irregularly built, and the roadways rough and dangerous, the downward distillations of natural drainage being painfully perceptible in many places to the nose and to the eye.

Duke-street exists, for the most part, upon the map alone, but the adventurous rambler may get along a good distance in the direction it will one day take provided always that the weather has been fine for some days previously. Otherwise, the “distillations” will be somewhat offensive, and he may be ankle deep before he knows what he is about. Duke-street is at present almost inaccessible from above or from below, but the visitor will find an easy entrance to it from the upper part of William-street between Dowling-street and Broughton-street; in every other respect, it is pretty well isolated. In this feature, it is not unlike Judge-street, Burrapore-street, and Charles-street, which are all cut off from the main street in such a singular manner that a stranger might long search for them in vain. Judge-street terminates at its southern end in a private residence (like Wylde-street at Potts Point), its entrance being from Stephen-street, out of Forbes-street. Burrapore-street is a short street connecting the cross street of Corfu-street with Woolloomooloo-street, not far from Forbes-street.

To the north of the upper portion of William-street is an elevated area on which are several fine mansions with gardens, amongst which is Barham Hall, the residence of the Hon. E. Deas Thomson, C.B., for many years the Colonial Secretary of New South Wales. At the back of this block, Liverpool-street East is intercepted by a steep precipice, at the foot of which is a large and dreary space from which stone was quarried in the older days of the colony, and where now water stagnates and rubbish accumulates. The sudden fall thus occasioned appears to have been the despair of municipal ameliorators; for its appearance is such as to give rise to deep cogitation. What is to be done with it? Ought it to be built upon, lowered, left at its present level, or be raised? Is the back of Liverpool-street to be always left thus broken, or shall the missing vertebra be a steep ascent or a flight of steps? It will be a matter of tough speculation someday to determine, and more especially so when this queer spot becomes covered with houses.

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