Scratching Sydney’s Surface

Exploring hidden Sydney

9 June 2016: Time, Clocks and Towers

It is hard now to imagine when telling the time was a difficult thing to do. With everyone having a phone or at least a watch, it is easy to forget that not that long ago public time pieces were, for many, the best available option for getting to work on time, making sure they caught the train or made the meeting.

It’s amazing how many of these clocks and timepieces were sited around Sydney, and even more amazing how many survive still. The most prominent of these were the clock towers, which in their day, loomed over the low scale city round them and were visible to all the workers scurrying back and forth to offices and factories.

From the earliest days of the colony time was important. Convicts were sent here to do time, and their days were broken up into timed patterns. In 1797 Governor Hunter erected the first clock tower to the west of the settlement on what is now Church Hill. The tower was 46 metres high with its clock facing the town. The tower was damaged in a storm in 1799 and then collapsed in 1806. The clock itself was salvaged and re-erected in a smaller tower the following year.

The oldest clock still working in Sydney is in the façade of the Hyde Park Barracks. This was installed in 1819 by convict clockmaker James Oatley. Oatley, appointed as Keeper of the Town Clock by Governor Macquarie installed a number of public clocks across Sydney, with clocks in churches at Parramatta, Campbelltown, Windsor and Liverpool amongst others. The suburb Oatley is named after him.

Of the clock towers it is those at the Sydney Town Hall (1884), the Lands Department (c1890, clock 1938), the old General Post Office (1891), and Central Station (1921) that remain as the best examples. Each was built so as their clocks could be seen across the part of the city they stood in or from the approaching ferries to Circular Quay. Workers would check them as they went to their jobs. Their heights hint at the low scale of the nineteenth century metropolis and they could be seen across surrounding suburbs. Central Station, which was visible across the industrial suburbs of Redfern and South Sydney was colloquially known as “The Working Man’s Watch” for this reason. Town Hall Clock was visible from Balmain. Their prominence on the skyline was such that during World War II the GPO clock tower was dismantled for fear it would provide a target for Japanese air raids.  It was not rebuilt until the 1960s.

GPO Clock being removed 1942 (NAA C4078 N1914D)
GPO Clock being removed 1942 (NAA C4078 N1914D)

While the others worked independently, the clock at Central was the centre of an intricate system of integrated clocks around the station and across the Sydney train network. A system of electrical pulses regulated the time across the network so all showed the same time. Correct time is essential to safe and efficient running of railway networks and has been from the start. As such, the adoption of railway time as local time as the network extended across Sydney and NSW was instrumental in the eventual adoption of it as standard time for NSW and later Australia from 1895.

Central Station with its landmark clock tower in 1952. It still towers over the southern end of Sydney. (NAA A 1200 L 14553)
Central Station with its landmark clock tower in 1952. It still towers over the southern end of Sydney. (NAA A 1200 L 14553)

The scale of these clocks is not appreciated from the ground, but some ideas of the size of the mechanism can be taken from the fact that the Central Clock hands are 2.3m and 3m each, with the clock face itself is 4.8m in diameter. Upgraded in 2014 the Central Clock continues to provide accurate time, although fewer notice it these days.

Check out this short film on the history of the clocks on the Sydney system.

6 March 2016: Resch’s Refreshes

Recently in a hotel in Sydney’s inner suburban belt I came across an old pub mirror that said Reschs: the Drink a Man Remembers and it struck me that what was once seen as an old man’s beer, best left to grandpa’s and those propping up the bar in a dingy city pub, has somehow held on to re-emerge as the retro beer of choice.

Back when few beers were available to the discerning drinker, Reschs was my beer of choice too, and still is when I see it.  As their more popular marketing slogans went, It was the beer we drink round here.  The point was that it was Sydney’s beer, with a long history.

One of the many Reschs pub signs that once graced the walls of Sydney's hotels
One of the many Reschs’ pub signs that once graced the walls of Sydney’s hotels

The beer was the product of German brewing in nineteenth century Sydney.  In 1863 Edmund Resch arrived in Victoria, heading to the mines before moving to Cobar NSW in 1871 where he and another were the first to mine copper.  After moving about for 5 years, in 1877 he and his younger brother Richard, purchased a small cordial factory in the river port of Wilcannia in the states far west.  They were soon joined by a third brother, Emil and opened the Lion Brewery, with branches in Silvertown, Cootamundra and Tibooburra.

In 1892 Edmund installed a manager and retired to Melbourne, before taking up the offer to manage Allt’s Brewery & Wine & Spirit Co, known as the Waverley Brewery in Sydney in 1895.   Reviving the sagging business of Allt’s, Resch then purchased a second business, the New South Wales Lager Bier Co on South Dowling Street in Redfern.  Closing Waverley, he shifted the equipment to Redfern and expanded the brewery, while keeping the Waverley name. In 1906 the business was renamed Resch’s Ltd and the lion emblem of the Wilcannia operation became the symbol of the new company.

He had arrived in Sydney at the time of a great transition and turmoil in the brewing industry.  In 1900 there were 19 breweries in the city.  By 1920 there were only three, as the giant firms of Tooth’s and Toohey’s bought out, shut down or amalgamated with their rivals.  Only Resch’s withstood the onslaught.

Edmund Resch as an internee, 1917 (NAA D3597)
Edmund Resch as an internee, 1917 (NAA D3597)

From 1904-1914 he proudly advertised as being brewer to the Governor General and his beers captured a large portion of the NSW market.  Resch’s Dinner Ale and Pilsener were particularly popular.  Edmund’s business was increasingly successful, enough for him to buy the harbourside mansion Swifts, built in the 1882 by his brewing rival Sir Robert Lucas Tooth and to expand his Waverley brewery, hold off his rivals and purchase hotels to sell his products.  When war broke out in 1914, Resch, who had been naturalised in 1889, contributed generously to the effort and made up the difference in pay for around 60 workers who enlisted.  Despite this, his German heritage was enough to see him arrested and interned at Liverpool Camp in 1917 until the wars end.

Resch died in 1923 and his sons took over the business.  In 1929 the company was bought by Tooth & Co, who continued the Waverley brewery and maintained the name and range of Reschs products.  In 1983 Tooth were taken over by Carlton United Breweries in Victoria, who also continued the Resch’s brand.  In a quirk of history, CUB had been established by Edmunds brother Emil in 1907.

Although now much reduced, Resch’s is still available in NSW pubs.  Its silver bullet Pilsener is about the only survivor.  But as long as it is, Reschs still Refreshes.

17 January 2016: A New Year and a new direction

In December 2015, after 8 years on air on Fbi Radio, we broadcast the last Scratching Sydney’s Surface segment.

It had been a fantastic run and was a great way to get Sydney’s history out to such a huge audience.  But all good things must come to an end, and it was time for us to explore new ways of doing things and to give someone else a chance to present their ideas on Fbi.

Thank you Fbi for giving us that opportunity.

And while that phase has finished, we have hardly made a dent on the history of this city and so we will go on through this blog.

For a start we have a few radio segments we need to write up for the blog.  After that, we will add more material as we go along, with maybe a podcast or two thrown in for good measure.

Thanks for keeping with us for all these years.

See you all soon.


20 November 2015: The amazing Rooklyns

Let’s take a look at the amazing Rooklyn family – Russian-Jewish London-born brothers Maurice, Harry and Jack – who contributed to Australian life in quite different ways.

The Rooklyn family migrated to Australia in 1912, first living in Paddington, and later moving to the Hunter Valley town of Greta. The three brothers soon became involved in the entertainment industry, performing musical, comedy and illusion acts on the Tivoli circuit.

Here is Maurice Rooklyn about to perform is sawing a woman in half act, n.d. (SLV, Image No: al000529)
Here is Maurice Rooklyn about to perform is sawing a woman in half act, n.d. (SLV, Image No: al000529)

Maurice Rooklyn was a magician. He created (and tried to copyright) an act known as ‘The Human Target’, which was a variation of the bullet catch trick. After getting hit twice too many times, he moved to England where he toured his signature billiards manipulation routine known as ‘A Symphony in Spheres’. In the 1940s and 50s, he became a famous magician known as The Amazing Mr Rooklyn – his illusion and hypnotism show travelled throughout Australia, New Zealand, the Pacific Islands and Japan.

Brother Harry also stared out on the vaudeville circuit in Sydney but with a music act known as ‘The Musical Bandalero’. He began importing coin operated machines from America in the mid-1950s – mainly ‘slot machines’ including jukeboxes and pin ball machines. As well as being a ‘coinman’, he was a manufacturer of ‘kiddie rides’ (coin operated rides for children, often found outside supermarkets).

From the 1950s through to the early 1980s, Harry Rooklyn ran a fun parlour on George Street in the Haymarket called ‘The Happiest Place in Town’ –  it had pin ball machines, space invaders and shooting galleries. Rooklyn’s fun parlour is immortalised in the title and cover of the second LP by Australian 80s band Do Re Mi. Harry also ran the shooting gallery at Luna Park, and had a coin-operated amusement equipment showroom on Chelsea Street in Redfern and later became a namesake for a local park (which was later named something else).

Third brother Jack Rooklyn had a long and colourful life. He started out writing comedy sketches and later brought out the first American rodeo to Australia. He sometimes drove cabs to make ends meet and tried his hand as a jockey before he became too fat. During World War 2, Jack started a club for American soldiers based in Brisbane but later moved into the business of importing poker machines into Australia and across Asia, becoming the head of Bally Australia. Although there had been claims he was involved in organised crime from the 1970s, nothing stuck. But he was implicated in Queensland’s Fitzgerald Inquiry in 1988, and convicted of corruption in 1992. But due to his age and ill-health, he was fined, not jailed.

6 November 2015: Working horses

This week on Scratching Sydney’s Surface, we’re talking horses. But not the racing kind…

Wool drays in Pyrmont / Ultimo, c1900 (City of Sydney Archives, SRC18045)
Wool drays in Pyrmont / Ultimo, c1900 (City of Sydney Archives, SRC18045)

Delivery horses were once a regular feature in the streets of Sydney’s CBD and outer suburbs. Until the mid-20th century, they jostled for space in Sydney’s streets with motorised cars and trucks, trams, and pedestrians, to deliver supplies.

 A working horse having a snack in a Sydney street, 1916 (City of Sydney Archives NSCA CRS 51/1847)

A working horse having a snack in a Sydney street, 1916 (City of Sydney Archives NSCA CRS 51/1847)Hor

Food staples such as milk, bread, ice and fruit and veggies were delivered by horse and cart. Draught horses, usually working in teams, were used to carry heavier loads to and from the wharves, and to factories and warehouses around inner Sydney. Some of the heaviest loads they carried included wool and sugar. Horse-drawn ‘jinkers’ and drays, piled high with wool bales and sugar sacks, were a regular sight in the streets of Pyrmont and Ultimo until the 1930s.

Delivery horse and cart in Little George Street, 1902 (City of Sydney Archives NSCA CRS 51/131)
Delivery horse and cart in Little George Street, 1902 (City of Sydney Archives NSCA CRS 51/131)

One of the last delivery horses active in Sydney was the horse and cart used by Penfold’s Stationers, which was on the road from the mid-1940s until 2005.

23 October 2015: Talking and squawking

The week of 19-25 October 2015 is Bird Week so this week we’re taking a look at Sydney’s bird life, with a special mention of the budgerigar, an Australian native bird that’s now the most popular caged bird worldwide. For Neville Cayley, writing in 1936,  it was ‘doubtful if any other bird, animal, or flower from Australia is better known than this dainty and charming little feathered ambassador’.

A man, a cigarette and a budgerigar (or lovebird), 1935 (State Library of NSW, Digital Order No. hood_12255)
A man, a cigarette and a budgerigar (or lovebird), 1935 (State Library of NSW, Digital Order No. hood_12255)

Ornithologist and zoologist John Gould visited Australia in 1838-40 to prepare for his monumental work on Australian birds. When he returned to England, he took live budgerigars back with him. Gould was the author and illustrator of the impressive six-part publication, Birds of Australia, produced between 1840 and 1848. He is credited with introducing budgies to the world.

Budgerigars ‘were a great favourite in England as a cage bird’ by the late 19th century. Closer to home, breeding budgerigars became a popular pastime for the well-heeled in Sydney by the early to mid-20th century. The decade of the 1930s in particular saw the development of the ‘cult of the budgerigar’. There was a craze for aviary-bred budgies with diverse and beautiful colourings, which were developed through ‘scientific breeding, following Mendelism’.

Vibrantly coloured budgies on a perch, 1959 (National Archives of Australia, Image No. A1500, K4936)
Vibrantly coloured budgies on a perch, 1959 (National Archives of Australia, Image No. A1500, K4936)

In 1935, the Fairfax family had a show of 100 budgies in the gardens of their fancy home ‘Elaine’ in Double Bay. It was reported that ‘their (the birds) quality afforded proof of the progress being made in developing mauves, sky-blues, and other colours’. Over 100 colour variations were evolved.

Billy Peach was a talking budgie from Sydney, who found fame across Australia in the 1940s and 50s as a radio star. He had ‘personal appearances’ at department stores in Melbourne and Sydney, was a ‘spokesbird’ for the RSPCA and a Red Cross Voluntary Aid during World War 2. His ‘mistress, friend and trainer’ was Mrs Lydia Peach, ‘a very active great-grandmother’ from Darling Point. Billy began his speech training at six weeks old, ‘which has resulted in an extensive vocabulary’. When not making public appearances, Billy the budgie spent his life in a Darling Point flat with Mr and Mrs Peach. He could sing ‘God Save the King’, ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ and ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’, and had a vocabulary of 500 words.

Budgerigar (Melopsittacus undulatus) drawn by Neville Cayley, c1930s (National Library of Australia, nla.obj-135630495/PIC Drawer 6482 #R10113)
Budgerigar (Melopsittacus undulatus) drawn by Neville Cayley, c1930s (National Library of Australia, nla.obj-135630495/PIC Drawer 6482 #R10113)

It’s sad to see birds in cages, especially long-lived birds like budgerigars and cockatoos, so it’s good news that Bird Week is all about appreciating native birds in the environment – in 2015, ‘BirdLife Australia and the Birds in Backyards team have come together to bring you the Aussie Backyard Bird Count!’.

16 October 2015: Rookwood Necropolis

Sydney is home to the largest cemetery in the southern hemisphere, where up to 1 million former Sydneysiders now eternally rest.  Rookwood Necropolis, near Lidcombe, was opened in 1867 and is still an active cemetery.

The term necropolis refers to its enormous size, deriving from a Greek word meaning City of the Dead and at over 777 acres, or 300 hectares, it is the size of Redfern and Glebe combined.

The need for a large general cemetery was obvious in Sydney from as early as the 1850s.  By then, the old Sydney Burial Ground in George Street (under Sydney Town Hall today) had been full and closed for 30 years, and the Devonshire Street cemetery built to replace it (under Central Station today) was also nearing capacity.  While there were small, church yard cemeteries around, most of these were also on limited land and were restricted to the particular denomination of the church involved.

Old headstones at Rookwood Cemetery (City of Sydney Archive)
Old headstones at Rookwood Cemetery (City of Sydney Archive)

The need for a site with sufficient depth of soil, no rocks, drainage away from domestic water, relatively isolated from populated areas but still close to a railway and with the capacity to be beautified and landscaped, meant that it was not until the early 1860s that a site was chosen.  Land at Liberty Plains, approximately 18km from Sydney was deemed suitable and the Government purchased 200 acres in 1862.  In 1867 the passing of the Necropolis Act made it official.

The first burial on site was of a pauper, John Whalan on 5 January 1867, with the first registered burial two days later in the Catholic section.  This was of a 14 month old girl.  The first burial in the Church of England was also of a child on 4 January 1867.  Three humble burials to start.

Originally the cemetery was divided into six sections for different denominations: Church of England, Catholic, Presbyterian, Wesleyan, Congregational and Jewish, with Lutheran, Methodists and a general section added by 1881.  In keeping with Victorian era ideals, the cemetery was laid out as a garden landscape, with pathways, garden plantings, fountains and shade houses.

By 1890 there were over 37,000 people buried at Rookwood.  As the cemetery grew, it attracted associated industries to the area.  By the turn of the twentieth century, about 20 monumental masons had opened yards and showrooms in the area, with a refreshment room and florist also operating inside the cemetery by the 1930s.

The isolation of the necropolis in the years before private motor transport meant mourners and funeral parties needed a way to get to Rookwood.  A train line was included as part of the design for the cemetery to overcome this issue.

Rookwood station with a funeral train c1890 (SRNSW)
Rookwood station with a funeral train c1890 (SRNSW)

Funeral trains ran regularly from Central Station to Rookwood from 1867 until 1948, by which time the use of hearses and private cars had made the service redundant.  Inside Rookwood a grand station, or receiving house was built, with a matching one at Central.  Designed by the Colonial Architect James Barnet, the sandstone station was in a gothic revival style, with finely carved angels on the entry arches and angels faces on the roof trusses inside.  The line was extended through the cemetery between 1867 and 1901 with four stations serving the different sections.  In 1957 the main station was sold and dismantled, being re-erected in Canberra as All Saints Church in Ainslie.

Rookwood, final home too many of Sydney’s famous and infamous citizens, remains an active and much loved cemetery.  It may not be your idea of a great day out, but it is certainly worth a visit.

If you want more, much of the above came from the book The Sleeping City.  Check it out.

9 October 2015: Traversing George Street

George Street is regarded as Sydney’s first street. Some think that it follows the alignment of an earlier Aboriginal pathway; for others, this thoroughfare was formed by virtue of the topography at Sydney Cove. It was very possibly a combination of the two. One of the earlier European names it was called by was High Street, following the English tradition of naming main streets. It was officially named George Street in 1810 by Governor Lachlan Macquarie in honour of the monarch, King George III.

George Street soon became Sydney’s main thoroughfare, connecting up to the road west to Parramatta by the early 1800s. By the mid to late-19th century, horse drawn carriages and carts jostled for space with steam and horse-driven trams, as well as pedestrians and bicycles. But it was the arrival of the electric tram that shook things up. Plans to introduce electric trams along George Street, between Redfern Railway Station and Circular Quay, were first mooted in 1896.

Pedestrians, a horse and cart, cars and a tram, outside the QVB in 1918 (City of Sydney Archives, NSCA CRS 51/2305)
Pedestrians, a horse and cart, cars and a tram, outside the Queen Victoria Building in 1918 (City of Sydney Archives, NSCA CRS 51/2305)

The proposal was greeted with dismay from some quarters, mainly due to the need to erect poles to carry the overhead wiring, as outlined in an editorial in the Bowral Free Press and Berrima District Intelligencer in March 1896:

Sydney has always been proud of George Street. There is a distinctive peculiarity about this great thoroughfare that appeals to the national sense of the average citizen. With the exception of Macquarie-street north, it is the one spacious thoroughfare the city boasts. The news that the tram fiend is to invade it comes as a shock to many people and will make a serious difference to the omnibus proprietors.

After around two years of deliberation and delays in getting the correct equipment, the NSW Department of Public Works began constructing the electric tramline in April 1898. It was to run along George Street, but also along Harris Street to Pyrmont and Ultimo. An integral part of the new electric tramline for Sydney was the Ultimo Powerhouse, which provided the electricity to power it.

The first trial run of the new tram on Harris Street took place on Thursday 5 October 1899. It was heralded as a success. The NSW Governor, Lord Beauchamp, took a test run a few weeks later.

On 6 December 1899, the new electric tramline was handed over to the Railway Commissioners and it was opened to the public two days later.

George Street electric tram in 1926 (City of Sydney Archives, NSCA CRS 51/1247)
George Street electric tram in 1926 (City of Sydney Archives,
NSCA CRS 51/1247)

According to Isadore Brodsky, ‘…those trams, live true love, never did run smooth’ (Streets of Sydney). On its first day, a small child was killed by an electric tram near the Manly Wharf, although the driver was later exonerated. And there were ongoing ‘minor skirmishes between tram drivers and horse bus drivers’ because the latter felt their livelihoods under threat and so ‘obstructed the trams whenever they could’. The trams also had a habit of rocking back and forwards, and the wheels regularly slipped on the rails. But for passengers, the new trams provided a faster and cheaper route into the city and were taken up with gusto

A few years after the electric tram along George Street was stopped, Isadore Brodsky commented in the Streets of Sydney that:

It must be a case-hardened citizen who cannot see how much the George Street trams contributed to the progress and comfort, night and day, when the town was blossoming into a city.

Although the George Street tram was closed for business in November 1958, it lives to see another day.

18 September 2015: Cranky Frankie

In July 1974 Frank Sinatra was in Australia to play five concerts, two in Melbourne and three in Sydney at the Stadium.   It was to be the fourth tour by Sinatra since 1955, the fifth if he hadn’t cancelled out on a 1957 agreement.  Some say his 1961 tour was the best he ever sounded anywhere.  He was a big entertainer and a big crowd pleaser the world over.

By 1974 however, Ole Blue Eyes was on the wane a bit.  While he was still a popular figure, his glory days with the Rat Pack were almost behind him and his music style had been overtaken by rock and roll.  By then he had a second nickname on the road, Cranky Frankie.

But in July when he arrived in Sydney from America he was happy enough; he had lots of fans here.  His five shows had sold out with around 24,000 tickets.  However the afternoon he was to fly to Melbourne the Sydney papers printed allegations of his mafia links and made references to the number of famous women he had been linked to over the years, referring to them as Franks Molls.  Further, it appears from the memoir Lady Blue Eyes, written by his last wife Barbara, that at least one female journo snuck into his hotel room, at the Boulevard on William Street hoping for an exclusive only to be confronted by Sinatra in his room.  Now he was not happy.

But the show goes on.  He flew to Melbourne, where in front of a big crowd he played the hits, but also made his thoughts on Australian journalists well known.  To a laughing crowd he called them parasites and said the female ones were hookers who he wouldn’t pay more than a buck and half for.  The laughing now was more nervous than from hilarity.

Immediately trouble broke out.  The Australian Journalists Association demanded an apology, with the Professional Musicians Association and Australian Theatrical and Amusement Employees association saying his tour would be black banned unless he did so.  Sinatra in turn said if he didn’t get an apology from the journos, he would cancel his tour.

With no one budging, Sinatra and his crew boarded their private jet to return to Sydney and prepare to leave the country.  However by now the airport workers had joined in and refused to refuel the plane, meaning it had only enough fuel to make it to Sydney.  In Sydney the Transport Workers Union had joined in and refused to carry Sinatra on buses, taxis wouldn’t pick them up and then the hotel employees union refused to carry bags, stock the bar, bring room service or service the rooms.

Cranky Frankie was shut down and locked in his room.  The only hope was negotiation.

After a few days standoff in Sydney, the ACTU got involved with the then President Bob Hawke coming in to help.   Hawke spent hours locked in talks with Sinatra’s manager and lawyers (Sinatra wouldn’t come out of his room), but made it clear that unless he apologised he would need to walk on water to leave Australia.

And so it was.  Although he never apologised, Sinatra did agree to a statement that said he did not intend any general reflections on the moral character of Australia’s working media and agreed that the journos were just doing their job.  Hawke also conceded that Frank was protective of his privacy and rightly so.

Problem solved.  He played the three Sydney shows, with one broadcast live to Melbourne on Channel 9 to cover the one he missed.  I wonder whatever happened to that broadcast?

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