19 Sept 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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15 August 2014: Tall tower blues

The Blues Point Tower is one of the most contentious buildings in Sydney. It was designed by Viennese-born architect Harry Seidler and built in collaboration with Dutch-born building entrepreneur Dick Dusseldorp, who helmed the construction firm Lend Lease. Together, these two men, with their European sensibilities, set about reshaping Sydney in the post-war world. Blues Point Tower was their second collaboration after Ithaca Gardens in Elizabeth Bay.

The base of Blues Point Tower in 1976 (Graeme Andrews 'Working Harbour' Collection: 80164)

The base of Blues Point Tower in 1976 (City of Sydney Archives, Graeme Andrews ‘Working Harbour’ Collection: 80164)

The Blues Point Tower was an echo of a much larger planning scheme for Blues Point, which had been devised by Harry Seidler in 1957 on behalf of the McMahons Point and Lavender Bay Progress. His scheme was in response to North Sydney Council’s plans to rezone the peninsula for industrial use.

Seidler’s modernist scheme was replete with eight high-rise towers (including a hotel) as well as several mid and low-rise apartment blocks, all separated by open space. It was intended to accommodate up to 15,000 people. See here for a plan of Seidler’s 1957 scheme.

The scheme never went ahead. But one element of it did, in the form of a 25-storey tower right on the tip of the point. The site had been envisaged for the hotel in the earlier scheme, but in 1959, construction started on Sydney’s first skyscraper apartment block.

Blues Point Tower has been derided as the ugliest building in Sydney, but it did have an egalitarian intent, in that all the apartments were orientated to have harbour views and  adequate light from two directions. Importantly, the apartments were designed for families and included built-in laundries to meet their needs. It was also the first building installed with sprinklers for fire mitigation. Seidler always maintained it was his best building. See here for Seidler’s scrapbooks featuring the Blues Point Tower.

Aerial view of Sydney Harbour looking west, showing the Blues Point Tower all on its lonesome, 1991 (Graeme Andrews 'Working Harbour' Collection: 80586)

Aerial view of Sydney Harbour looking west, showing the Blues Point Tower all on its lonesome, 1991 (City of Sydney Archives, Graeme Andrews ‘Working Harbour’ Collection: 80586)

Although apartment living had been a feature of urban Sydney since the 1920s and 30s, the post-war period saw an increase in the city’s population, who were demanding more housing. This population boom coincided with an increase in private ownership of apartments following the abolition of rent control in 1954. On the scene in the late 1950s to meet the demand were a number of large property development companies, including Lend Lease and Reid Murray. These large companies managed the finance and construction of Sydney’s new apartment developments, along with their promotion and sale.

The Blues Point Tower also has another claim to fame, in that it was the building that innovated and brought strata title to the rest of the world, a blessing or curse depending on your experiences of apartment living. In fact, Dick Dusseldorp played a leading role in the introduction of strata law. He engaged a lawyer to expedite the process, arguing that the price of apartments would drop with the introduction of this new type of land title system. Strata title allowed for the purchase of individual apartments rather than a share in company, as per company title, or tenants in common, which had been common previously. With strata, owners had freehold title of airspace and communal responsibility for the maintenance of the building and its grounds. The Conveyancing (Strata Titles) Act was passed in 1961.

Read more about Blues Point Tower and apartment living more generally in the book Homes in the sky: apartment living in Australia, published in 2007.

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8 August 2014: Samuel Lyons and Sydney Auctions

Sydney is a city that has been fixated with auctions since the first stirrings of commercial trading.    The very first edition of the Sydney Gazette published in 1803 has an auction notice for goods, clothes and hardware.  While some rudimentary shops were trading by this time, most got their food, clothing and household goods either via auction houses or through trading with the government stores.

One of the first of the merchant traders was Simeon Lord, who had regular sales from his warehouse near the harbour by 1803 and even operated a small shop there to sell household goods and foodstuffs.  In the second addition of the Gazette, Lord advertised two auctions which included quills, ink powder, sealing wax, tape and metal buttons in one and rigging, sails, seal skins, muskets, beef and pork, iron bolts, lead and shot in the other.  The following week he advertised a house for auction behind the barracks in George Street.  The shingled and weatherboard hut in Back Row (now Kent Street) was the first house in Sydney advertised to be sold at auction.  As now, the house was open for inspection prior to the sale.

Despite this early example, most houses and land parcels were sold by private tender rather than auction as supply and demand were on a relatively equal footing.

Lord was soon joined in the trade by David Bevan and Robert Campbell, and together they dominated the Sydney selling market.  Even as shops as we understand them began to open auction was the dominant form of trade in the colony.  Often ship owners would sell their cargoes directly to the auctioneer, who would then onsell to the public and the small number of retailers to stock their own shops.

In 1825 Samuel Lyons, who would become one of Sydney’s most successful auctioneers started in the business.  Lyons is the classic convict makes good story.  Arriving in Sydney under a life sentence for theft in January 1815 he immediately tried to escape on a ship outbound in April.  Detected when the ship was in the Torres Strait, he was returned to Sydney, then to Hobart where he tried to escape again, before being sent to Newcastle in 1819 for breaking into the Government stores.

Married and back in Sydney in 1823, Samuel opened a small shop in Pitt Street before getting an auctioneers license in 1825.

Like Lord and the others, Lyons’s first advertised sale was a jumble of household goods, haberdashery, condiments and clothes.  By 1830 Lyons had also started selling land, with a sale of four lots overlooking Cleveland House, still standing on the edge of Surry Hills, near Central.  Lyon’s sales of land and houses soon dominated his business and in 1834 he yielded £61,872 from it.

Having received a pardon in 1832, Lyons sent his 3 children back to England for schooling, took up a grant in Fort Street, purchased property in Newcastle and Bathurst and moved into a new, architect designed house and rooms in George Street.  In 1836 he announced his retirement, just 13 year after starting and he returned to England.

Lyons Terrace, built by Samuel Lyons in 1842.  Sydney's premier address. (Dixon galleries, SLNSW DG218)

Lyons Terrace, built by Samuel Lyons in 1842. Sydney’s premier address. (Dixon galleries, SLNSW DG218)

Lyons returned to resume his Sydney business in 1839 and quickly rebuilt his business to be the second largest operation in Sydney after Cooper & Levey’s Waterloo Warehouse (where the Gowings Building is now).  Lyons was turning over an estimated £5464 a day (when an average wage was around £2 per week!).

His success had made him respectable, influential and popular.  When he died in 1851 at the age of sixty, his funeral procession was made up of 80 vehicles.  No mention of his convict beginnings were made in the obituary’s at the time.  There is plenty more detail on him here if you are interested.

So next time you are at an auction, for a house, a car or a box of sundries, remember Sam Lyons and know you are taking part in a historic ritual at the very heart of Sydney’s sense of self.



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1 August 2014: Civil defences in World War 2

Just a few weeks ago, a relic from World War 2 was discovered at Town Hall Station. A painted sign was uncovered during recent works to upgrade the platforms the station. The sign, painted on a steel beam above platforms 1 and 2, had red lettering that read ‘AIR RAID SHELTER’, with an arrow pointing down the stairs.  This 70-ish year old relict reveals how the citizens of Sydney were prepared for all sorts of threats during World War 2.

The war came to the Pacific in World War 2. When Pearl Harbour was bombed on 7 December 1941, commonwealth, state and municipal authorities across Australia started to take precautionary measures. Sydneysiders, similarly to all Australians, were paranoid about invasion and attack from both the air and the sea. The bombing of Darwin on 19 February 1942, killing almost 250 people, only heightened fear and paranoia on the homefront. The impact of war came ‘home’ when Sydney was attacked on 31 May 1942, as was Newcastle in early June, although these were submarine attacks rather than attacks from the air.

Air raid shelter in Sydney's Hyde Park during World War 2 (Australian War Memorial, 042825)

Air raid shelter in Sydney’s Hyde Park during World War 2 (Australian War Memorial, 042825)

So how did Sydneysiders prepare for war? In response the perceived threat, the city and suburbs of Sydney were decked out with a range of anti-aircraft devices. These included strengthening the coastal defences and major supply routes with anti-aircraft guns and armed sentries. Hospitals and public buildings were sandbagged; there were air raid drills; and blackouts were enforced. Six foot deep ‘zig zag’ anti-aircraft trenches were dug into parks and other open spaces, including school playgrounds.

Air raid shelter in a north shore backyard (Australian War Memorial, P05601.006)

Air raid shelter in a north shore backyard (Australian War Memorial, P05601.006)

Purpose-built bomb-proof and air-raid shelters were built throughout Sydney, including in back yards. Existing underground infrastructure, such as train tunnels, were also put to use as air raid shelters, including at Town Hall and St James stations.

Home made air raid shelter at Bellevue Hill, c1942 (Australian War Memorial, 044550)

Home made air raid shelter at Bellevue Hill, c1942 (Australian War Memorial, 044550)

In addition to building or adapting infrastructure to protect citizens from attack from air and sea, residents of Sydney volunteered in their thousands for the National Emergency Service (NES).

The NES was a volunteer organisation formed in 1939 to help ‘protect, educate and provide aid on the home front’. Over half the NES volunteers were ‘wardens’.

 Harold Edwin Wombey of Fairlight, kitted out in his NES uniform (Australian War Memorial, P10992.005)

Harold Edwin Wombey of Fairlight, kitted out in his NES uniform (Australian War Memorial, P10992.005)

The wardens were on call day and night. Their duties included going door to door to make an inventory of all the residents in an area in case of evacuation; to make evacuation plans for hospitals and other large congregate care institutions; to staff and administer the numerous NES Control Centres dotted throughout NSW; and to dig the aforementioned zig zag trenches. Others volunteered as stretcher bearers.

Although the threat of coastal attack continued for the duration of the war, there were no more immediate threats to Sydney after 1942.

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18 July 2014: Sydney’s building blocks

This week on Scratching Sydney’s Surface, the topic is bricks. Yes, that’s right. Bricks.

The landmark chimneys at the edge of Sydney Park are the remnant of Josiah Gentle’s Bedford Brickworks, which were in operation on the site from 1893.

St Peters Brickworks, c1984 (City of Sydney Archives, SRC17506)

St Peters Brickworks, c1984 (City of Sydney Archives, SRC17506)

But it was not the first brickworks here – it was one of many brick, tile and pottery works on the site of Sydney Park – and indeed, in the local area – from the early 19th century.

Former brickworks on the site of Sydney Park, when used as a garbage tip, 1962 (City of Sydney Archives, NSCA CRS 48/2016)

Former brickworks on the site of Sydney Park, when used as a garbage tip, 1962 (City of Sydney Archives, NSCA CRS 48/2016)

The present day suburbs of Erksineville, St Peters and Marrickville are underpinned by Wianamatta Shale, which produces a type of clay ideal for brickmaking.

Once a brick works was established, clay was excavated from ever deepening pits.  Most brick works had workshops and kilns on site for shaping and then firing the clay into an array of products including bricks, tiles, pipes and decorative pottery.

Apart from Josiah Gentle, other notable brickmakers in the Newtown / Erskineville area included Henry Knight, who became involved in local government and Henry Goodsell, who had a brickworks on the site of today’s Camdenville Park. Both men are remembered in street names in the area. Just opposite Sydney Park, the aptly named Bakewell Brothers produced decorative pottery from the late 19th century through to the mid-20th century.

Map showing the brickworks on the site of Henson Park (Marrickville Council History Services, M9/ 112) http://swftnsw.sdp.sirsidynix.net.au/client/search/asset/62385

Map showing the brickworks on the site of Henson Park (Marrickville Council History Services, M9/ 112) http://swftnsw.sdp.sirsidynix.net.au/client/search/asset/62385

Brickworks at Henson Park before it was filled in, 1926 (Marrickville Council History Services, 000858) http://swftnsw.sdp.sirsidynix.net.au/client/search/asset/172798

Brickworks at Henson Park before it was filled in, 1926 (Marrickville Council History Services, 000858) http://swftnsw.sdp.sirsidynix.net.au/client/search/asset/172798

Many of Sydney’s brickpits, including those at Sydney Park, were used as rubbish dumps once the clay was extracted and the brickywards had ceased operation. Other former brickpits were filled in to create parks – examples of public parks that were once brickyards include Sydney Park, Henson Park, Camdenville Park, and Jarvie Park. The Dibble Avenue waterhole in Marrickville is the only open remaining brick pit in Sydney.


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