3 July 2015: Sydney’s lost shopping arcades

If you go into the centre of Sydney today, you’ll find the palatial Strand Arcade linking George and Pitt streets. It is Sydney’s only surviving Victorian shopping arcade dating from the late 19th century.

Royal Arcade, photographed by Brian Bird in 1949 (State Library of NSW, Digital Order No. a3267004)

Royal Arcade, photographed by Brian Bird in 1949 (State Library of NSW, Digital Order No. a3267004)

It was once one of six covered shopping arcades built in the city centre between 1881 and 1892, concentrated in the area between George, Castlereagh, King and Park streets.

The lost arcades of Sydney were the Royal Arcade (between George and Pitt streets), the Victoria Arcade (linking Castlereagh and Elizabeth streets), the Sydney Arcade (between George and King streets) and the Piccadilly and Imperial Arcades (linking Pitt and Castlereagh streets but around a block apart). Some of those names may sound familiar but what we see today is not a patch on what went before!

Strand Arcade 1970s (City of Sydney Archives, SRC17476)

Strand Arcade 1970s (City of Sydney Archives, SRC17476)

Sydney’s 19th century shopping arcades were based on the European arcade architecture of the early 1800s. Shopping arcades were a transition from street level shopping to the department store experience of the 20th century. Arcades were effectively covered streets aimed at high end consumers, which provided customers with a place to promenade, and the opportunity to shop at individual shops concentrated in one place.

Imperial arcade under construction 1965 (City of Sydney Archives, NSCA CRS 48/4742)

Imperial arcade under construction 1965 (City of Sydney Archives, NSCA CRS 48/4742)

But as shopping trends changed in the 20th century, with a move to the large department stores in the 1920s and 30s, and as sandstone Sydney was sacrificed to glass and steel, five of the six Victorian shopping arcades were demolished. Only the Strand Arcade remains, although there’s a glimpse of the Sydney Arcade’s facade on King Street. The Piccadilly and Imperial Arcades live on in name only.

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26 June 2015: The Powerhouse Museum

In 1879 the International Exhibition at the Garden Palace in Sydney included a display of the latest technological and industrial innovation in New South Wales and the Australian colonies.  People flocked to the Botanic Gardens to marvel at the latest inventions in transport, communications and industry.  Exhibitors were invited to show their latest product or development to show the advances being made in the young colony.

With the end of the Exhibition it was decided that the exhibits would form the basis of a new technology museum collection to be held at the Palace.  Sadly, in 1882 the Palace burnt down in one of Sydney’s most spectacular urban fires.  The much of the collection was also lost, but what remained was then relocated to a pavilion in the Outer Domain.  Renamed as the Technical, Industrial and Sanitary Museum (which hints at its focus), by 1886 it had outgrown its pavilion and visitors complained of the cramped conditions and difficulty in viewing the displays.  25,000 items were in the collection by 1887.

In 1888 the museum was presented with the Whitbread historical steam engine.  Coming from a London Brewery, the engine was then 102 years old.  Built in 1785 by Bolton and Watt it remains as one of the most significant pieces of industrial technology on display at the Powerhouse and is the oldest operation steam engine in the world.  With donations of this calibre, it became increasing obvious that a purpose built museum was needed.

The old Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, Harris Street (SLNSW)

The old Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, Harris Street (SLNSW)

In 1892-93 the decision was made to build a new museum as part of the Technical College in Harris Street Ultimo.  By this time the collection was under the direction of the Minister for Public Instruction, who also managed the Technical College.  As the centre for technical education, and surrounded by industry, wool stores and trades, Ultimo was considered the perfect fit for the new museum of technology.

The new building opened in August 1893 and was quickly a popular attraction.

Six years later, in 1899 further north on Harris Street, a new powerhouse was opened to provide electrical power to the growing Sydney tram network.  The first electric tram line ran from George Street to Harris Street, utilising the powerhouse supply and reinforcing Ultimo’s place as Sydney technological and industrial hub.  The powerhouse later also supplied power to the Sydney train network.  It operated until 1963.  The ending of the tam network in Sydney (back now though) and better power supply for the trains made the site obsolete.  The gradual closure of the woolsheds from the early 1970s onwards also marked the end of the industrial expansion of the Ultimo area.

In 1988, as part of the Bicentennial celebrations,  the old Technology Museum  moved into the former Ultimo Powerhouse.  The building was a perfect fit for the scale and size of many of the exhibits, with the vast spaces of the old power station allowed trains to be on full display, the Whitbread steam engine to work its magic, for airplanes and other large scale displays to be suspended from the rafters, and enough floor space to have permanent displays of small items and large travelling exhibitions.  It also saw the museum renamed to be the Powerhouse Museum.

In February this year the NSW Government announced that the Powerhouse would be relocated to Parramatta and the site sold for developers.  A new museum for Parramatta is a great idea, but seeing as the Powerhouse has enough stuff in its Castle Hill storage for 3 museums, build a new one and keep the old one in its historical precinct.

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12 June 2015: Busby’s Bore

Busby’s Bore, which runs under Sydney’s streets between Centennial Park and Hyde Park remains as one of the most impressive pieces of convict built infrastructure in Sydney.

In the mid-1820s, Sydney was in the midst of a water crisis.  In the space of 30 years, the European settlers had managed to make their main fresh water source, the Tank Stream, undrinkable through its use as a sewer, an outdoor bathing system and a livestock watering place.  Residents had been digging wells for a number of years to supplement the fresh water the stream once provided, but drought years and an increasing population meant another source was desperately needed.

In 1824, the mineral surveyor John Busby arrived in Sydney.  Seeing the problem he suggested to Governor Darling that a tunnel or bore could be built linking the fresh water Lachlan Swamps in the east to the city, where the water could be stored in a large reservoir.

Busby was commissioned to build the tunnel in 1825 and work started in 1827.

Busby's Bore delivery system in Hyde Park (SLNSW SSV1/WAT/1)

Busby’s Bore delivery system in Hyde Park (SLNSW SSV1/WAT/1)

Using convict labour, the bore was started at the city end near the present day corner of College and Liverpool/Oxford Streets.  The process involved sinking shafts down to the required depth along the route and then tunneling through to each shaft, before sinking the next series and continuing.  For 10 years convict gangs worked under the streets cutting the tunnel with hand tools through the sandstone and shoring up the sides and roof with Pyrmont sandstone when it moved into the sand dunes of east Sydney.

Water began to flow from seepage streams from 1830, with sufficient water to provide drinking water to the public.  This was delivered by an elevated pipe line on a trestle erected in Hyde Park.  In 1833 pipes were extended to Circular Quay and water sold to visiting ships there.

When it was completed the bore delivered between 1, 360, 000 and 1,818,000 litres per day.  Water was collected in water carts at the pipe end and sold around the city.  In 1844, reticulation pipes were connected delivering water direct to about 70 homes in the city, with more connected in the following years.  Fresh water delivered to homes and pubs, transformed domestic life in Sydney at the time.  Public water fountains were also set up throughout the city.

Inside the tunnel, stone lined and capped (City of Sydney Archives)

Inside the tunnel, stone lined and capped (City of Sydney Archives)

The bore was supplement in 1854 with a small pumping station near Centennial Park to push water through it and remained as the sole source of fresh water to Sydney until 1858, when the Botany Swamps Water Supply Scheme started.  However it continued to supply water to the city, Woolloomooloo and other inner suburbs into the 1880s and was still running and used in the Botanic Gardens into the twentieth century.

In the 1870s the Bore was cleared of debris and in doing so one of the reasons it had taken so long to build was revealed.  Busby and his team of overseers had managed the project from the surface, not wanting to go into the dark tunnels with the convict workers.

The workers then had managed the underground work unsupervised.  The tunnel was discovered to not go in straight lines between each shaft, but rather to run the course of least resistance.  If a particularly hard area was in the way, the convicts backed up and tried a different route.  There are blind alleys, exploratory drives and irregular passageways all through the system.  The tunnel also varies from just under 1 metre square in places to large caverns of over 3m high and 3.5m across.

Although long closed off it is still all there.  28 shafts remain under the surface of Oxford Street, through Victoria Barracks, at the back of the football stadium and Fox Studios and into Centennial Park, with the stone lined tunnel a hidden reminder of the convict workforce that built the city we live in.

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5 June 2015: Sydney Film Festival revisited

22nd Sydney Film Festival.

22nd Sydney Film Festival.

Back to 2013 for a history of the Sydney Film Festival.

See more here on the SFF’s online archive.

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29 May 2015: Once upon a Time at Wyldefel

Wyldefel Gardens in Potts Point are an example of some of the finest 1930s living spaces that were built in Sydney.  Completed in 1936 with the latest modern design and architectural principals applied, they are still at the top end of the Sydney apartment market 80 years later.

The apartments are like a Sydney modernist fairy tale, with a name to match.

Wyldefel gardens, c1940.  The flat roof of each apartment forms the terrace of its neighbour (COS Archive 040641)

Wyldefel gardens, c1940. The flat roof of each apartment forms the terrace of its neighbour (COS Archive 040641)

Built on a sloping site that faced the harbour, Wyldefel Gardens consisted of 20 apartments in two rows. Each had a flat roof which made up the outdoor terrace of the apartment behind, allowing all to have a view of the harbour.  The two rows were separated by a common space for the residents, which included a tennis court, swimming pool and gardens.  Living spaces flowed from internal to external areas, taking full advantage of the sites aspect while maintaining privacy for the residents.

The apartments were built for William Crowle, owner of the historic house Wyldefel on Macleay Street.  Crowle imported cars, was a generous philanthropist, art collector and design enthusiast.  On a trip to Germany in the mid-1930s he saw a new apartment block, a neighbour of Hitler as he later said, and decided it would be perfect for his Sydney vision.  The end unit was a two storey apartment Crowle had for himself which he christened Once upon a Time.  This was built above a boatshed, into which Crowle could dock and enter the house, much like a garage.  Crowle employed architect John Brogen to work his design idea into his modernist masterpiece.

Unfortunately for Crowle, when broke out in 1939, the navy at nearby Garden Island decided to build a new graving dock for ship repairs and refits.  As part of this work, the Island was connected to the mainland at Potts Point and Once upon a Time was in the way.  Many of the fine old houses in Wylde Street were demolished and Crowle’s house was to be one of them.

Once upon a Time, at Wyldefel (CoS Archive)

Once upon a Time, at Wyldefel (CoS Archive)

However, in a masterstroke of negotiation, Crowle managed to convince the navy to relocate his house to a new site at Neutral Bay, on the opposite side of the harbour.  His apartment and the boatshed it sat on, was dismantled and rebuilt looking back to its former location.

The house still stands at the end of Kurraba Road and the apartments also survive on their original site, looking across the harbour to Once upon a Time.

Check out the HHT publication, Homes in the Sky: Apartment Living in Australia for more on Sydney’s apartment boomtimes.

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15 May 2015: Crowd Source

Crowd Source is a fantastic exhibition currently on in the upstairs galleries at the State Library of NSW.

The photos on display are part of the collection of a street photographer in Sydney named Arthur K Syer, who worked in the late 1880s and 1890s.  Syer’s photos on display are part of a series he took for his friend, the illustrator Phil May.

Arthur Syer, 1900 by his brother the artist Walter Syer (MLc035680001t)

Arthur Syer, 1900 by his brother the artist Walter Syer (MLc035680001t)

A band gets ready to march, Sydney, photo by Syer (ML a844018r)

A band gets ready to march, Sydney, photo by Syer (ML a844018r)

The images were taken with a small, handheld, concealed camera, commonly called a detective camera.  The camera, made possible through the invention of daylight loading roll film and Kodak cameras, allowed Syer to photograph people in the street going about their business without them knowing about it.  From these, May could then make life sketches for his work in the Bulletin and other publications.  It was a brief moment in time when photography was just a tool in the artists employ, rather than the main source of magazine illustration.

Syer’s photos capture Sydney siders at the races, buying fruit at Circular Quay, running along besides marching bands, buying vegetables from Chinese hawkers, chatting to their neighbours, getting a horse cab, watching passers-by pass by and all manner of day-to-day stuff.

It’s a fascinating glimpse of Sydney in the late nineteenth century just going about its business.

It’s free and on until 18 August.  Check it out.

You can also follow Arthur on Instagram.

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8 May 2015: Sydney’s Fight of (last) Century

A few weeks back, the so called fight of the century was fought out between Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao.  It was a matchup between two who had avoided each other for as long as possible, are at the end of their careers and were paid more than just about any fighter in history.

In 1908 Sydney had its own fight of the century, between two fighters who had been trying to avoid each other and one who would be paid more than any fighter before him.

Jack Johnson, in his finery (NAA A1861, 848)

Jack Johnson, in his finery (NAA A1861, 848)

This was the world heavyweight bout between the American champion Tommy Burns and the black American fighter Jack Johnson.

But why Sydney?

Burns was already in Sydney on the behest of promoter Hugh McIntosh, who had leased a site at Rushcutters Bay to build a temporary stadium for Burns to fight local champion Bill Squires, who he beat in 13 rounds.  With about 40,000 locals turning out, McIntosh saw an opportunity to make lot more money by organising Johnson to come to Sydney as well.

Johnson was a tall, suave, Texan boxer, banned from fighting for championships in America because of his colour.  Australia, with its White Australia Policy was equally racist, but not so much when it came to fighting.  After much urging, and the promise of £6000, Burns agreed to fight if Johnson would come to Sydney.

The match up was confirmed for Boxing Day 1908 at Rushcutters Bay.  Burns was touted as the Great White Hope against the savage Johnson, who had learnt to fight in six man brawls in Texas bars; last man standing was the winner.  But Johnson was also a dazzling urbanite. He dressed in the best suits, had a gold tooth with a diamond in it and played the bull fiddle to relax.  His training sessions became one of the hottest tickets in town.

McIntosh promoted the racist element of the match, commissioning Norman Lindsay to draw the fight poster with Johnson towering over an attacking Burns.

Norman Lindsay's Great White Hope (ML a1528552r)

Norman Lindsay’s Great White Hope (ML a1528552r)

The day of the fight saw 20,000 people pour into the stadium and a further 25,000 outside.  The Prime Minister J.C. Watson and Attorney General Billy Hughes both attended.  Women were banned from the stadium, however a number dressed as men and snuck in regardless.  It was said that Johnson refused to get into the ring unless his share of the purse fee was increased by £500, to £2000, an offer that McIntosh renegotiated with a pistol.  In hindsight, with the gate takings equalling £26,000 he could have paid it.

The fight was filmed, one of the first sporting events in Australia to be recorded, and the stadium had phone lines set up so it could be reported.  It was a terrible mismatch.  Johnson savaged the world champion and was winning easily when police stepped in to the ring to stop the carnage.  Johnson was crowned world champion, the first black boxer to win it.  The fight basically finished Burns’career, but Johnson went on to hold the title until 1915 and continued to box until he was 50.  Rumours abounded about his flamboyant lifestyle, which included his 4 marriages, an apparent drinking challenge with Rasputin, a time working as a matador and acting as a spy in WWI Spain.

Now that’s a fight worthy of a century.

Check Terry Smith, The Old Tin Shed for more

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