24 October 2014: Gough’s Sydney

In honour of the recent passing of Gough Whitlam, it’s time to take a look at the contribution of this notable Australian Prime Minister on Sydney and Sydneysiders across his lifetime.

Edward Gough Whitlam was the 21st Prime Minister of Australia from 1972 through to 1975. Melbourne-born and Canberra-raised, he moved to Sydney in 1935 to start his studies in law at the University of Sydney. After a stint in the armed forces during World War 2, he resumed his studies in 1945 and became a practising lawyer in 1947.

Gough Whitlam delivers the Labour Party's policy speech at Blacktown Civic Centre in Sydney, 1972  (National Archives of Australia, Image no. : A6180, 5/12/72/5)

Gough Whitlam delivers the Labour Party’s policy speech at Blacktown Civic Centre in Sydney, 1972 (National Archives of Australia, Image no. : A6180, 5/12/72/5)

He joined the Darlinghurst branch of the Australian Labor Party (ALP) in 1945. He was elected to the seat of Werriwa in 1952, and remained as the local member until 1978. Whitlam and his young family initially settled in a home they built at Cronulla in the immediate post-war period, but they moved to Cabramatta in the 1950s, which was by then in the heartland of Whitlam’s electorate.

Whitlam was the deputy leader of the ALP in 1960–67 and the leader of the opposition in 1967–72. He was elected as the 21st Australian Prime Minister in 1972.

Whitlam made significant contributions to the everyday lives of Australians through an ambitious reform agenda across health, housing, education and regional development. His government’s enduring legacy for the people of inner Sydney was an agreement to provide social housing in Glebe and Woolloomooloo. Whitlam Square, at the north-west corner of Hyde Park, was formally named in his honour in 1983.

But it was western Sydney where Whitlam left the greatest mark. He represented the seat of Werriwa for over 25 years, which from 1955 to 1977, covered south-western Sydney including Cabramatta, Liverpool and Campbelltown. But his popular appeal extended  beyond his electorate. Whitlam was notable for providing sewerage to the suburbs, through the provision of specifically targeted local grants.

For western Sydneysiders, Bowman Hall in Blacktown has significance as this was where he launched the “It’s Time” election campaign, and the launch of his second election campaign in 1975.

See also other sites of significance in western Sydney here.

The Whitlam Institute, a social policy institute located at the University of Sydney, commemorates Gough Whitlam’s life and work

Farewell comrade.

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17 October 2014: Gladesville Bridge

Two weeks ago, on the 2 October, Gladesville Bridge celebrated its 50th birthday.

When it was completed in 1964, the bridge was the largest concrete arch bridge in the world, a record that stood until 1980.  It was also one of the first to be designed by computer, by a young engineer called Tony Gee working for the engineering firm G Maunsell & Partners in London.

The bridge replaced an earlier steel truss bridge built in 1883.  This bridge was one of several built in the 1870s and 1880s to take road traffic across the various rivers and coves as you head west from the city, replacing punts and ferries on the way.  Its nearest neighbour, Iron Cove Bridge (still standing) was completed two years before.

The old Gladesville Bridge c1910. SLNSW PXE 711/194

The old Gladesville Bridge c1910. SLNSW PXE 711/194

The original low steel bridge went across the Parramatta River at a narrow section at Huntleys Point.  The last span on the western side was a swing span that could be opened to allow boats to pass through, heading up or down river.   A number of jams in the mechanism in the 1920’s and afterwards however stretched the public’s patience. The sandstone piers at either end of the bridge, joining it to the land are still in place today.

By the mid-1950s the old bridge was past its use by date.  As a single lane each way, the bridge could no longer cope with the increasing amount of vehicle traffic and traffic jams became increasing common.  The County of Cumberland scheme, a new planning scheme for Sydney released in 1951 had suggested the need for new bridges and freeways, with Gladesville Bridge as one of the proposals.

The first plan was for another steel bridge until Maunsell’s idea for a concrete span was accepted.  The idea of a concrete bridge of the scale required was a bold and innovative plan for the 1950s, and had not been tried before.  Tony Gee, just 22 and recently graduated, was sent out to manage the project.  He suspected that the company thought getting the job was a long shot so they sent the cheapest employee.

Gee wrote and designed computer programs to design the massive structure and work began in December 1959.  The arch consisted of four concrete box arches constructed independently, which share the load of the road deck equally.  Each arch was built in sections and transported to the site where they were constructed on formwork, in the same basic style of traditional stone arch bridges.  When each arch was finished, the concrete load acted to lift the arch from the formwork which was then moved sideways so the next section could start.

It seems Sydney had a thing for innovative, cutting edge concrete design that no-one else was quite confident or crazy enough to take on at this time.  Just down the harbour a bit the start was being made on the other concrete engineering masterpiece, the Sydney Opera House.

Up she goes.  The span under construction in 1963. (NAA L43885)

Up she goes. The span under construction in 1963. (NAA L43885)

As with any large scale construction in Sydney, especially its inner suburbs, the construction resulted in demolitions of many houses along its route and the route of its two associated bridges, the Fig Tree Bridge and Tarban Creek Bridge.  However, it had been planned to be part of the northwest freeway which was abandoned due in part to protests about the proposed demolitions of hundreds of houses in Glebe.

The bridge was opened on 2 October 1964 by visiting Royal Princess Marina, Duchess of Kent.

There is plenty more on the Bridge here, with videos of its construction and opening.



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9 October 2014: Sydney’s public libraries

2014 marks the 75th anniversary of the introduction of the NSW Library Act (1939).

NSW led the way in Australia with the establishment of free public libraries. Until this legislation was passed, there were only two free public libraries in NSW: Broken Hill (established in 1906) and the City of Sydney (established in 1909).

This legislation enabled the provision of free public libraries around the state. Under the act, local councils were provided with state government subsidies as an incentive to set up free public library services.

A book repairer at Bankstown Municipal Library, 1957 (National Archives of Australia, Image no. : A12111, 1/1957/16/40)

A book repairer at Bankstown Municipal Library, 1957 (National Archives of Australia, Image no. : A12111, 1/1957/16/40)

The free public library movement had been founded in 1935 by Geoffrey Remington, a prominent Sydney solicitor and businessman. He was influenced by a critical but influential report into Australian Libraries known as the Munn-Pitt report.

The free public library movement was a layperson’s lobby group made up of a diverse group of people and organisations: from service clubs and trade unions to politicians and school teachers. Librarians at the Public Library of NSW were involved informally, providing support and advice.

Story time at Surry Hills Library, 1964 (City of Sydney Archives, NSCA CRS 48/3895)

Story time at Surry Hills Library, 1964 (City of Sydney Archives, NSCA CRS 48/3895)

The first meeting of the free public library movement was held at the Chatswood-Willoughby School of the Arts. The meeting was convened by Remington and involved broad ranging group, including parents, citizens groups and progress associations.

Although Geoffrey Remington was the key driver of the movement, free libraries came about due to people power. Active members within the movement spread their message through radio and pamphlets. Children were encouraged to write essays on the benefits of free public libraries. Key supporters and unofficial advisors of the movement were the Principal and Deputy Librarians at the Public Library of NSW (now the State Library of NSW).

This agitation for accessible community spaces where local citizens could borrow books (and also films) was a product of an increasingly literate society in the mid-20th century.

The NSW Library Act was passed on 3 November 1939, on the eve of World War 2, and within 18 months, 32 NSW councils had adopted the act. Although the legislation enabled financial incentives to be provided to local authorities (i.e. councils and shires) to establish library services, this aspect of the act was delayed until after the war ended.

Ryde Civic Centre and Centenary Library, c1971 (City of Ryde Library)

Ryde Civic Centre and Centenary Library, c1971 (City of Ryde Library)

In the immediate post-war period, some of the first suburban municipal libraries in Sydney were established at Mosman (1945), Ku-ring-gai (1945), Bankstown (1946) and Marrickville (1947).

Bankstown was the largest municipal area in NSW. Its library was established in 1945, along with several branch libraries into the 1950s.

Libraries were often established in existing buildings, often former school of arts buildings. But into the 1950s, as increased funding became available, purpose-built libraries began to be built. The architectural form of the municipal library was important, as was its siting as an important civic building. The form of the building had certain requirements, such as abundant windows to allow light and enough space for  patrons to move between aisles.

By 1959, two thirds of the NSW population had access to a public library. Today, public libraries are used by 44% of the population.

Find out what’s happening across the state on the State Library of NSW website here and check out some pics of libraries in Sydney and across the state here and here.

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3 October 2014: Grand Final Weekend

Well it’s that time of year once again, the rugby league grand final and an all Sydney final: South Sydney Rabbitohs vs Canterbury Bulldogs.

The last time these two meet was 1967, South’s winning that one 12-10.

Both teams are strong on supporters, with fierce local fan groups.  They are old teams in the comp, with South’s a foundation club from 1908 and Canterbury joining in the first push of new teams in 1935.

Both have won their fair share of finals too.

South’s won the first grand final in 1908 (and 1909 when their opponents, Balmain, failed to turn up for the game.  Souths kicked off at 2 to an empty field, gathered the ball and scored the winning try) and they hold the record for the most finals for any club at 20 out of 33 appearances.  In the first 20 years of the comp, South’s won 9 finals, including 5 in a row between 1925 and 1929.  Their last win was 1971, beating St George 16-10.rabbitohs

43 years since the last has been a very long time for South’s.  Not only have they not won a grand final, but in the aftermath of the Super League in the mid-1990s, South’s were excluded from the NRL.  Following two Supreme Court challenges and two mass rallies, the first which attracted 30,000 people who marched from Redfern to the Sydney Town Hall and the second that attracted 80,000 league fans from all clubs, they were readmitted to the comp in 2002.  In 2006 Russell Crowe, a lifelong supporter, bought the club, and a new era began.

Canterbury have played 17 grand finals in their 79 years in the comp, winning 8.  They won their first in 1938 just 3 years after joining the comp, the quickest win for a non-foundation club until Melbourne won in 1999.  Like South’s the Bulldogs had a long drought after early success. They won in 1942 and then not again until 1980, 38 years later.

The 1980s were the Bulldogs glory decade, appearing in 5 and winning 4 grand finals, including 1984 and 1985.  Another 3 played in the 1990s with a win in 1995 and their latest win in 2004.

Bulldogs logo 1935-1977

Bulldogs logo 1935-1977

While South’s have long been known as the Rabbitohs, Canterbury have been through a series of names in their history.  At first, the logo  was a B inside a C  and so they were nicknamed the See-Bees.  Then in the later 1940s, with a lot of country players in the team they were called by their detractors the Country Bumpkins, then the Cantabs by the media (doesn’t really roll off the tongue that one) and then the Berrie’s.

In 1978 under pressure from the league marketers to come up with an animal mascot (Canterbury and Newtown were the only 2 teams without an animal mascot), the club asked the fans what it should be.

Overwhelmingly the decision was for a Bulldog, and so it was.


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19 September 2014: Sydney’s War Trophies

In late 1916 the British Army fighting in Europe began to collect captured artillery pieces, mortars and guns for display as trophies of war and establish a war museum collection.  In May 1917, at the urging of journalist and historian Charles Bean, Australia established the Australian War Records Section (AWRS) to collect for our own purposes. Over two years the AWRS collected over 25,000 objects as well as written records, manuscripts, maps and other war related material for a proposed war museum.  The collection formed the basis of the Australian War Memorial.

While most of the material was destined for the proposed memorial, a selection was to be offered to all the States for distribution to local communities for display in parks and at schools.  The distribution was to follow a set of guidelines put forward by State Trophy Committees.  For towns, distribution depended on size of population: the more you had the bigger the trophy.  If your town had more than 10,000 people you could get two artillery pieces and two machine guns, less than 3000 and only a machine gun was available.

Suburban Councils and Sydney schools were also allocated a trophy, although not everyone got one.  Across NSW about 3000 were distributed, with close to 10,000 around Australia.

A German 7.7cm field gun.  The gun of choice for war trophies (AWM P00438).

A German 7.7cm field gun. The gun of choice for war trophies (AWM P00438).

While it was expected that the trophies would be warmly accepted, the war had left deep wounds in some communities.  The enormous loss of life and the trauma caused by the conscription debate had left many with a bitter taste and a real hostility to the glorification of the war.

In Sydney a number of Councils rejected the trophies.  Redfern Council in the inner city was offered a German field gun in 1921 for mounting in Redfern Park.  The Council rejected it, stating that the people had had enough of war and there was no need to display guns to impress upon them the active marks of war.  The Council declared that instead of bothering about guns, the government should be helping those men who had returned and who needed their aid.

The local community was split, with a committee of citizens being formed to accept the gun in the suburbs behalf, in spite of the Councils stand.  And so it was that Redfern got their gun, mounted opposite Redfern Park, as the Council refused to have it on council property.  The Council was denounced as a pack of Sinn Fein supporters (a hint at growing sectarianism in Australia), disloyal to Australia and Empire.  In 1922 the gun was pushed from its pedestal by unknown persons.

Sydney City Council also refused to allow war trophies to be displayed in the city.  Although they had taken the Emden Gun in 1917, by 1920 the mood had changed and no more were wanted.  Willoughby Council was also torn over the issue.  As with Redfern, councillors called on the mayor to reject the offer and to help the returned veterans instead.  One councillor called it rank hypocrisy to accept a trophy when men were in need.  Memorials were one thing, but garish prizes quite another.

Redfern's 7.7cm War Trophy, toppled by persons unknown (Evening News 22 March 1922)

Redfern’s 7.7cm War Trophy, toppled by persons unknown (Evening News 22 March 1922)

But even for those who accepted them there was still tension.  Auburn, who received a trench mortar felt hard done by, believing their efforts in the war deserved more recognition, particularly since Parramatta had got such a big gun.

Gun envy was a common complaint where the size of the weapon became synonymous with civic pride and what they did in the war.

But where are they now?  Almost 80% of the guns allocated have disappeared, scrapped, put in storage, sold or simply lost.  Ironically those remaining represent one of (if not) the best collection of WW1 German artillery pieces in the world and has become a significant heritage and military technology collection.

If you want to follow this further, here is a full thesis on the topic.




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29 August 2014: Elsie

This year celebrates to the 40th anniversary of the Elsie Women’s Refuge.

Elsie Women's Refuge in 1974 (image courtesy Druisilla Modjeska, National Library of Australia, http://nla.gov.au/nla.pic-vn3997705)

Elsie Women’s Refuge in 1974 (image courtesy Drusilla Modjeska, National Library of Australia, http://nla.gov.au/nla.pic-vn3997705)

Today there are hundreds of women’s refuges across Australia, which provide women and children with an environment safe from abusive and violent partners.

In 1974 there were none, until Anne Summers and a cohort of 14 women (including the indomitable Bessie Guthrie, then in her 70s) broke into and squatted two terrace houses on Westmoreland Street in Glebe. Within six weeks, the shelter had provided short term accommodation for just over 40 women and their children.

Within two years, Elsie had helped 3000 women – two thirds had been provided with accommodation, while the other third received advice from counsellors and staff about their ‘grim marriage situations’.

A laneway nearby was named Elsie Walk in honour of the refuge in 2012.

But Elsie is in threat due to the recent NSW government shake up funding of homelessness under the ‘Going Home, Staying Home’ reforms.

There is a rally today (29 August 2014) at 12pm at Minogue Reserve in Glebe, opposite the school, to help save Elsie and the other women’s refuges across Sydney. More here. And more here from Anne Summers on the fight to save women only refuges.

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22 August 2014: The Halvorsen Story

Last month Carl Halvorsen, renowned Sydney boat builder, died one day short of his 102nd birthday.  Carl arrived in Sydney in 1924 from Norway via South Africa, with his mother and siblings to reunite with their father Lars who had come on before them.

Lars was a boat builder, as was his father before him.  He built his first in 1902 in Norway, and soon gained a reputation for fine workmanship.  In 1922 economic factors forced him to move the family to South Africa, where he met an Australian who encouraged him to bring his skills to Sydney.

Lars first boatshed was in Drummoyne where he built the timber sailing yacht Sirius. By the time he had finished it he had two more commissions and the business began to grow.  In 1926 Carl, then 14, left school and joined his father and brothers in the trade.  His expertise with wood working saw him given the task of fashioning the 21m mast of the yacht Utiekah II by hand, using adze and planes.

The reputation of the company for their yachts was growing rapidly and many of Sydney finest racing vessels were made by the family.  One, the restored Sirocco was sold to Errol Flynn for his sailing adventures in New Guinea in 1929.

In 1936 Lars died and his sons took on the business under the name Lars Halvorsen Sons Pty Ltd.  By now they were operating out of a large boatshed in Neutral Bay but relocated to a larger site on the river at Ryde in 1939.  The new site was once part of James Squire’s colonial brewery, a landmark on the Parramatta River since the 1820s.

A Halvorsen Fairmile gunboat in WWII (AWM P01047003)

A Halvorsen Fairmile gunboat in WWII (AWM P01047003)

When war erupted in the Pacific in 1941, Halvorsen’s joined the effort building over 250 small and medium sized boats for the Royal Australian Navy, US Navy and Dutch Navy including air-sea rescue boats, gun boats, supply vessels and patrol boats, including the Australian commander Sir Thomas Blainey’s command craft.  At its peak, the company employed 350 workers to keep up with the wartime demand.

In 1949 Carl took one of their motor cruisers, the Tooronga, to the USA attracting the attention of the post war Hollywood crowd.  Bob Hope and Humphrey Bogart were both keen on the boat, being photographed taking her for a spin (although didn’t buy it).

Yachts and motor boats now dominated the business.  In 1962 the company built the America’s Cup challenger Gretel, the first serious challenger from Australia for the coveted yachting prize and the first challenger to win a stage in 28 years.

Carl Halvorsen [right] with his boats for hire at Bobbin Head 1968 (NAA A12111)

Carl Halvorsen [right] with his boats for hire at Bobbin Head 1968 (NAA A12111)

To take advantage of a growing leisure time for Australian workers and families, the Halvorsen family opened a boat shed at Bobbin Head and built small motor boats that could be hired.  Renting a Halvorsen cruiser for the day became one of Sydney’s most popular harbour activities from the 1950s.  At its height their marina had 63 motor cruisers for hire, as well as smaller boats and row boats.  The family sold the lease in 2006, by which time it was their main operation, the Ryde boatshed having closed in 1980.

Since starting in 1975 the Halvorsen’s built over 1300 boats on Sydney Harbour.  His services to the sailing industry (and his own long sailing record) were recognised with an Australian Sports Medal, awarded to him and his brothers Magnus and Trygve in 2000.  Carl himself had also been made a Knight First Class of the Royal Order of Merit by the King of Norway in 1991 for his contribution to sailing in Australia and Norway and his charitable work with state wards.

Vale Carl Halvorsen.

For more check Randi Svensen’s history of the family, Wooden Boats, Iron Men: The Halvorsen Story.


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