150 years ago Redfern was incorporated as a Municipality with its very own Council to run its affairs on August 11, 1859. It was the third council in the metropolitan district (not including Sydney Council) after Waverly and Glebe, but only 6500 people lived in the area. Not everyone was happy with the plan at the time; petitions for and against the formation of the new Council went back and forth before it was established, the delays costing it the title of first council. The first Council meetings were held in the front room of one of the councillor’s homes, then a local pub until 1870 when the grand new Council Chamber was opened in Pitt Street, Redfern’s premier address.
Redfern Council had plenty to do. While Redfern had been subdivided in 1842 and buildings had sprung up, it was still dominated by sandhills and marshy lowlands. Part of Councils’ work was to fix the streets, build the parks and light the darkness. On swampy ground near the middle of the suburb, land where cows got stuck in deep mud after rain, the Council dedicated Redfern Oval in 1885. 11 acres for public recreation included one of Sydney’s first bowling clubs, a cricket pitch and became home to the famous South Sydney Rabbitohs.
The Council also paved the streets with wood. Like many of Sydney’s Councils in the later 1800s, the dusty roads were a source of constant nuisance. Redfern used wood blocks, rectangular blocks of Australian hardwood, dipped in tar and laid out like a giant parquetry floor. The blocks fitted together so well that they rarely needed replacing and kept the streets dust free. When the bitumen was later used, many of the wood block streets were simply tarred over, the blocks remaining underneath. They still remain there, occasionally appearing after road works.
But it was light that was the great achievement. Redfern was lit by gas lamps in the 1880s. These gave a weak light in a small arc and needed to be lit each night. It was better than darkness, but not by much. In 1889 the Council toured south west NSW to inspect the electricity sub station at Young. Electricity was still a relatively new idea and quite radical. Impressed, the Council voted unanimously in 1891 to build its own power station to power the suburb. And so it did. Opening the new power station in Turner Street in 1891, Redfern became the first suburb in Sydney to have electricity and more importantly electric lighting in the streets.
Like the wood blocks, the Town Hall and the park, the power station is still there. They remain as civic symbols of Redfern Council (itself long gone) and their endeavours to make Redfern Sydney’s suburb of choice.
Happy Birthday Redfern.