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 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.