This weekend many thousands of fun runners will take part in a Sydney tradition-The City to Surf.  The route starts in William Street, where many of the runners will have some time walking as the front crowd disperses and so may have some time to consider the history of the street they are running on.

William Street is one of Sydney’s main arterial roads, taking traffic from the city east, originally to the fancy mansions of Darlinghurst ridge and later further east to the growing harbour and beach suburbs.  The road was put through in 1834, probably following an earlier Aboriginal track as many colonial Sydney Streets did.  Surveyor Thomas Mitchell, who had a villa on the ridge, proposed a different route, following an easier route but one which cut the boundaries of two other properties of Thomas Barker and Thomas West. 

Neither wanted their land compromised by a road and so when Mitchell was away from Sydney surveying, the road was pushed straight through the shortest but steepest route creating problems for horse drawn vehicles for the next 70 years.  Furthermore the cross road at the top of the ridge, across Victoria St and Darlinghurst Rd created kings Cross and the worst traffic bottleneck in the city until the 1970s.

Still the road did begin to attract development.  Dairy farms were still there in the 1860s but were soon replaced by terrace shops and residences, pubs and boarding houses.  The boarding houses were a popular accommodation choice in Sydney from the 1870s through to the 1920s, serving a growing population of transient workers, as well as people coming to the city for work from country areas, long term residents, single men and women.  Most of the boarding houses were run by women, offering a meal and board.  They were one of the first female dominated industries in Sydney, with 6 women owner/operators to every man in the 1890s.

The grand Victorian shop terrace at 217-221 William Street awaiting demolition in 1916.

As a major street, William Street was narrow-only 41 feet or about 13m across.  By 1916 the traffic flow was diabolical and Sydney Council acted to resume the entire street and demolish all the buildings on the southern side, widened the street to 100 feet or 30m (the original width as proposed by Mitchell).  The now empty lots were re-sold and William St rebuilt with new pubs, shops, car showrooms and residential flats.

Of course it has also been the road to Sydney’s seedier side for almost 100 years.  As the upcoming Underbelly series will no doubt portray, William Street has seen its fair share of crime in its history.  Prostitution has been a feature of the street from the 1890s, first as brothels and from the 1960s including the more visible street corner pick-ups. 

The Strand Hotel on the corner of William and Crown St was the site in September 1929 of one of the most brazen murders of the razor gang era when Frank Green and Jim Devine, part Tilly Devine’s gang, shot Barney Dalton and Wally Tomlinson, both working for Kate Leigh, at point blank range, killing Dalton outright and seriously wounding Tomlinson.  It was part of the wider gangland war between Devine and Kate Leigh.

Further up the street from the Strand was the Chard Building, built in 1924.  The Chard was better known up until the late 1930s as the 50-50 Club.  Run by Phil ‘The Jew’ Jeffs, the 50-50 Club was Sydney’s best known secret illegal casino, sly-grog nightclub and cocaine den.  Jeff’s ran his crime empire from the club, including girls who would service clients in the apartments upstairs.  The club shut in the late 1930s, when even Jeff’s police bribes couldn’t keep the raids out.

William Street had always aspired to greatness. From Mitchell’s early vision to later Council’s hopes for a great wide boulevard and Sydney’s answer to the Champs Elysees never really made it.  But nonetheless it is one of Sydney’s most colourful thoroughfares and worth a look as you jog along.

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