Remembering the Past Australia

Rambles Through Sydney 1864

As published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 15 June 1864.

Part six 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.”

COMING down Margaret-place, from Wynyard-square, we see by the heavy hill that we have to descend, how very low Sussex-street lies as compared with the rest of the city; but low as is the line, it is still considerably above high-water mark, whilst the houses on the western side of the street are, for the most part, considerably lower than the street level, whilst in some places the street even appears to run along an eminence as compared with them.

At the foot of Margaret-street lies the commencement of Sussex-street, the capacious and well-finished wharf of the Australasian Steam Navigation Company, bounding it at this, as Hay-street finishes it at the other or southern end. There are waterman’s stairs at the foot of Margaret-street, forming a pretty commodious landing place. From Margaret-place to Erskine-street, Sussex-street is essentially, tarry and sailory. The majority of the persons we meet consists of those hybrid seamen known in these regions as “laggers,” being those engaged in coasting craft or steamers, with a pretty good sprinkling of ships’ carpenters, ditto blacksmiths, engineers, stokers, or some of the other many employés in and about ships. To these may be added dealers in produce of all kinds, and either resident on the spot, or having come to it to trade with the residents. The houses consist for the most part of stores for produce, seamen’s lodging-houses, and petty hucksters’ shops, though there are some extensive establishments on the water frontage, in one of which in particular very large works are undertaken.

On the western side of the street, the houses are all below the level of the footpath, whilst on the eastern side, they are all above it, the original rock still remaining unremoved in many places, and showing the heavy precipice which once came down across this line of street at one period of its history. Owing to this broken character, for the rocks have been quarried out in some places, though left in their natural state in others, there are many spots to which the water drains down, and on which it lodges. There consequently do not present that cleanly appearance that ought to mark the purlieus of so important a thoroughfare. On the lower side also, are accumulations that would be the better for removal, whilst the outgoing tide leaves, in many places, long black miniature canals of watery sludge, that send up anything but pleasing odours, which cannot but be deleterious to the occupants of the thickly inhabited houses that lie close upon their banks.

Between Erskine-street and King-street we have an undoubted improvement on the western side of the street. To the right or north of the former street, the water frontage is taken up by the Phoenix Wharf, and, on the other side, the projection of land known as Soldiers’ Point here runs out for some distance beyond the line of Sussex-street. On the point stands the building that was erected originally for the Bethel or Mariners’ Church, but which is now used as a store; and the Point itself has been cut out into allotments, and laid out in streets, viz., Lime, Union, and Ship streets. These streets have been properly formed and are well kept, and as the houses stand well up above the water-line, they present a gratifying contrast to other and lower parts of the same neighbourhood.

Returning to Sussex-street we have now a continuous line of stores on the western side, whilst on the east have been recently erected several good homes from the stone quarried out in levelling. There are, however, many of the old style of houses still standing, and some of them still remain perched up upon the primeval rocky precipice that the first adventurous resident in their quarter found on his arrival, and which filled up the whole of the intervening space between Sussex and Kent streets. In many instances this precipice has been cut away, and the ground levelled; but on looking at the spots where this has been done, we see much more forcibly than we could otherwise have done, all the difficulties that remain to be overcome before the owners of the land will be able to make anything like a uniform line of construction such as proper sanitary regulations require. As we get further down to the land occupied by the Patent Slip, we see, by looking over the palings that here guard the side of the footpath, that there is here a sheer descent from the line of street to high-water mark, of at least thirty feet. The Patent Slip is close upon the corner of King-street, of course on the lower side. Whilst looking up that street, we see a stiff ascent, up which only a good horse is able to take even a medium load.

From King-street to Market-street we notice that more improvements have been made of late years than in any other part of Sussex-street. On the upper or eastern side, rows of good, substantial, and well-built houses appear to have been erected, and the rock has been quarried away most extensively in order to make a site for them on a level with the footway. On the lower or western side also some one or two very superior buildings have been put up. The Market Wharf and the commodious wharf and stores of the H. R. N. S. N. Company occupy the greater portion of the water frontage between King and Market streets, and, as they are to a great extent public wharves, the former, in particular, being under the direct supervision of the city officials, there is not the same amount of disagreeables to be met with, here as in other parts of the water line.


Scots Church Sydney (1859) [Looking west along Jamieson Street, past Scots Church to Petty’s Family Hotel]; William Hetzer, fl. 1850-1867. 

State Library of New South Wales.

Near the north-eastern corner of Market and Sussex streets are a few old primeval rookeries perched upon the original rocky eminence that they occupied in very early days of colonial history, and in precisely the same state in every respect as they were in thirty years ago. These houses will give the passer along this street a very good idea of the style of building that once graced the street, and the kind of street we had before engineers and surveyors set to work upon their present system of levelling. Standing in Sussex-street, opposite these interesting remnants of antiquity, and looking over the dwarf wall towards the Market Wharf, we find that, although so far beneath the level of these primitive mansions, we are still some forty feet above that of the wharves and produce stores below, there are some of these establishments that lie between the New Hunter River Company’s wharf and King-street, which, seen from the street above do not present the most engaging appearance, as the passenger is let into the secret of the back premises, and the insufficient drainage and accumulated heaps of rubbish tending materially to deprive the view of anything picturesque that it might otherwise have offered.

After leaving Market-street and journeying still southward, we find that we are getting into a new district. We are leaving the land of corn, hay, and produce, and are entering that of timber, firewood, and coals. Everywhere we see coal piled up in cart heaps, timber carefully ranged in huge stacks, and firewood placed in great piles. The coal, however, predominates. You smell coal as you go along, everyone you meet bears a coal brand upon him, either dabbed on his face or on some part of his dress. Half at least of the vehicles that pass you are laden with coal; men with tarpaulin sou’-westers and coal-blackened canvas jumpers that bear a very close resemblance to coal sacks in process of colouring, are to be encountered in every direction. There are still one or two produce dealers scattered about, but it is only too apparent that they are there only on compulsion, and that they have been crowded out from the regular recognised Quarter of the produce merchant, and that they intend to shift so soon as an opening offers. Coal Wharf, or Coal and Timber Wharf, is marked up everywhere, and everybody appears to be a coal and timber merchant; and, mingled with the all-pervading scent of coal, there is a perceptible smell of cut cedar, and a generally prevailing noise of steam-driven saws mingled with and often drowning the hoarse puff of the high-pressure steam-engines, and the incessant rattle of the hammers of the riveters at work on some boiler under repair.

From Market-street to Druitt-street the wharves extend out for a long distance from Sussex-street to deep water; whilst on the eastern side, the houses are generally of a low character, small, inconvenient, and ill-built. The greater part of them have been erected very many years ago, being nearly as old as the street itself. The area between the street and the water frontage is here, perhaps the best-reclaimed portion of the street. It has been nearly all filled up and levelled and consequently allows of none of those little black noisome creeks up which the making tide brings the noisome refuse matter that floats on its surface, leaving it, when it ebbs, to fetter and rot, and to poison the air with its gaseous exhalations. The greater part of the area has not only been filled up and levelled, but good substantial roads have been made for the haulage of the coal from the water’s edge.

After passing Druitt-street, we come to the old region that was once dedicated and completely given up to the slaughter-houses of the city. These have now happily been removed, and the greater part of the land on which they once stood, and where they formed one of the greatest nuisances amongst the many that the city suffered under, has been filled in; so much so, that the site is hardly recognisable. Although not yet perfectly completed, the work of carting rubbish to the ground appears to be going on rapidly and has been so far proceeded with that there is no longer any nuisance from the area, which, only a short time back, threatened the whole neighbourhood with an epidemic. On reaching Bathurst-street, we find that that street runs down a long distance towards the water after crossing Sussex street, and we also perceive that some very good, and even handsome houses have been erected here. The ground all down to the water’s edge has been filled in and levelled; and on the southern side of this extension of the street, between Brodie and Craig’s old wharf and Sussex-street, several streets have been laid out, formed, and made, rows of neat houses have been erected, and the whole assumes a very different appearance from the swamp upon which the advancing tide often made inroads, not many years ago, and which was at the best of times a mingled area of unwholesome mud, or stagnant pools. The whole of these houses in this neighbourhood have been erected since the establishment of the municipal council, and, under the eyes of its officers, every convenience for drainage, &c, has been attended to.

Between Bathurst and Liverpool streets, Sussex-street again changes its features and assumes an appearance of faded gentility. The houses have been more carefully and more pretentiously built, and in the olden time were considered to be absolutely genteel. Since then, they have of course fallen very considerably from the high estate they once occupied. Having passed Liverpool-street, we come to a very doubtful region of back streets that lie to the west of Sussex-street; but, as these are in process of reclamation and formation, it is hardly fair to criticise them. We may, however, say that a walk round amongst these streets would greatly astonish some of our comfortably lodged citizens, and open their eyes as to how, and where many of their fellow-citizens made themselves homes. The ground may be said to be about half-reclaimed. Streets have been commenced, and roadways made, to break off suddenly in the midst almost of a swampy meadow of dank unwholesome verdure; for grass it is not, and which even the goats refuse to nibble. And this same remark applies to all the area lying west of Sussex-street, from Liverpool to Hay streets, where it ends, the breaking-off becoming more abrupt, the bits of street shorter, the filling-in less, and the swampy mud greater, as we get nearer to the end of the street, and the head of the bay, amongst the debatable ground, to which land and water are both laying claim, and to which we have referred in the first portion of this article.

Right up to Liverpool-street, Sussex-street is, perhaps, one of – if not the most – busy streets in the city; though trade to a larger amount is doubtless done elsewhere. Through the wharves that edge the water near it comes the whole of the produce from the coast districts, the most prolific agricultural regions of New South Wales; and, as a natural consequence, the agents who have the sale of this produce have their places of business as close as possible to the landing-places of the articles in which they deal. To these come dealers and shopkeepers from all parts of the city and suburbs for their supply of eggs, butter, cheese, bacon, hay, corn, and the other numerous articles, for which this street has long been the great mart. In consequence of all this trade, it has been computed that there is by far more traffic along the northern and middle portion of Sussex-street than along any other street in the city, if we except George-street.

Very great improvements have been made here, but more particularly in the land that has been the more recently reclaimed. Land that a few years ago was swampy, broken, and impassable has now been carefully filled in and levelled, and in many cases built upon; whilst land that for the last thirty years has been taken up for and appropriated to wharves, and continuously used as such during that time, still continues to be broken up with canals and creeks of pestilent ooze – still has the same hollows and stagnant pools that have been a nuisance for years, and still retains the primitive aspect it wore when the piles of the wharf were first driven.

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