Scratching Sydney’s Surface

Exploring hidden Sydney


Sydney Town Hall

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 September 2013: Picture This – History Week 2013

This weekend is not only the Federal Election but also the beginning of NSW History Week, 2013 Picture This.  Unlike the election, in History Week the choices are real, the content is authentic and the historians involved are fully costed.

Now in its 16th year, History Week is one of the largest, most diverse and successful History Events in Australia.

The link to the full program is here, but a few highlights of the week ahead are worth talking about.

Dulcie Deamer dressed for the 1924 Artist Ball
Dulcie Deamer dressed for the 1924 Artist Ball

The big show kicks off Saturday night with the Artist Ball, a full blown party night based on the wild and wildly successful artist balls that were a feature of Sydney’s bohemian lifestyle  from the 1920s until the 1970s.  Based on the 1933 Ball, the event is being held on Level 7 of David Jones Market Street Store.  DJ’s On Seven is itself a magnificent space that was traditional used for balls, exhibitions and events and is now reopened.  Ongoing for the week On Seven is the recreated Yellow House gallery, again themed around the (in)famous artist gallery in Kings Cross.  The History Council of NSW is proud to present five Australian artists’ works (for sale) based on historic muses from Sydney’s artistic past.

At Mitchell Library on Tuesday and Wednesday a two day symposium presented by Macquarie University and the History Council of NSW examines history and the media.  Historians, journos, radio and TV producers, writers and presenters get together to look at media and history.  A series of workshops over the two days goes further to help with practical skills and techniques for those in or hoping to get in to the industry.  The symposium includes the Annual History Lecture, this year presented by award winning journalist Chris Masters.  Masters will present his lecture titled The Battlelines of News and History, reflecting on journalists role and their influence on history, particularly in the world of military and political history.

Across the water at the Australian National Maritime Museum on Wednesday 11 September a symposium exploring the use of digital platforms are being used in our major cultural institutions to showcase their collections.  Speakers include Dr Lisa Murray City Historian and Chair of the Dictionary of Sydney Project.

There is plenty happening, for example on Saturday 14th you could go and see the upper gallery’s of Sydney Town Hall and their rarely seen portrait collection; all week the Hurstville Museum and gallery has a free photographic exhibition of local faces and people; on Tuesday Marrickville Library has Graham Shirley from the National Film and Sound Archive talking about the NFSA and Commonwealth’s first long term cinematographer; on Sunday 15th, Stanton Library at North Sydney is taking a walking tour (amongst other things) around the suburb including the site of Bernard Holtermann’s house;  on Monday night at the Grasshopper Bar in Temperance Lane in the city, four historians tackle the old adage that a Picture tells a Thousand Words-but can it be done in ten minutes?

There are events all over Sydney (and across NSW).

It is the premier history event in NSW (not to mention the NSW Premiers History Awards on Thursday night).

Come along.  We’ll see you there.

10 August 2012: Lucien Henry

Eating in a restaurant last week, I overheard some locals tell a French tourist that Sydney had no history compared to Paris and not much to see as a tourist except the beaches, harbour and other natural wonders.

Not surprisingly I disagree.  Not only does Sydney have a fascinating, complex and surprising history it also has plenty of French connections.

One of these is the French revolutionary artist, Lucien Henry.  Although he had only a brief Sydney residency, he left an artistic legacy that shaped Sydney’s architectural and decorative landscape.

Lucien made his way to Sydney in 1879 via 7 years of political exile in New Caledonia, where he had been sent following the failed 1871 Paris Commune.  The Commune was brutally put down by the French army after a ten week struggle with over 30,000 killed and 10,000 arrested.  Of these, 5000 were exiled as convicts to the South Pacific.

Lucien Henry after his arrest in Paris, 1871

Granted amnesty after 7 years, Lucien decided to come to Sydney, possibly following his heart, as he married fellow exile Madame Juliet Rastoul in late 1879, six months after he arrived.  Rastoul was already well placed in Sydney society and helped Lucien establish himself as an art tutor.

Lucien arrived in Sydney just as a new sense of national identity was developing.  As the centenary of European settlement was approaching, a stirring of national pride and of NSW’s place in the nation state was building.

Lucien, bringing a revolutionaries perspective to his art, and fascinated by the wild design potential of Australian flora such as the waratah and animals like the lyrebird, set out to develop a distinctive Australian artistic style using these influences.

Lecturing at the Sydney Mechanics School of Arts and being the 1st Instructor of Art at the new Sydney Technical College gave Lucien a platform for his ideas.   His manifesto included the belief that the state should provide a technical education to the people that would benefit the community as a whole rather than just a pleasant pastime or an accomplishment for the individual alone.

In the late 1880s, Lucien turned his attention to a major publication, Australian Decorative Arts, with 100 plates and illustrations he hoped would form a basis for a National School or style.  The book included ideas for wallpaper, architectural features for houses, cast iron, furniture, decorative arts, lamps, tiles, mirrors and all sorts of public and private styles featuring Australian plants and animals.

During this period he was also commissioned for a number of major commercial and public buildings, including the new hydraulic passenger lift cars in Anthony Horden’s emporium, the decorative Wunderlich ceiling of the Australia Hotel and the stained glass windows of the Centennial Hall of the Sydney Town Hall.

Waratah, Lucien Henry 1887. Art Gallery of NSW collection.

The two windows of the Town Hall represent Captain Cook on board ship in one and an allegorical figure of NSW.  These windows remain as the only example of his public commissions but also represent the culmination of his design principals.  The windows are chock full of symbolism, Australian fauna and Lucien’s revolutionary republicanism.  The figure of NSW is flanked by the words Advance Australia, placing NSW at the centre of the growing federation movement and celebrating a political identity that did not yet exist: a single Australian nation.  To top it off, the figure is standing on a globe with Oceania written across it, placing Australia at the centre of regional power, not the imperial powers of Britain or France.

In 1891 Lucien returned to Paris to promote the publication of his Australian Decorative Arts.  However, failure to gain a publisher coupled with a bankruptcy case in Australia, the collapse of his marriage and then the death of his new lover in childbirth all culminated to break Lucien’s spirit.  He decided not to return to Australia, fearing the criticism and ridicule, instead living amongst the poor of Paris under a pseudonym where he died from consumption in March 1896.

Sydney’s history then may not be as obvious as the grand palaces and galleries of Paris, but it’s not that hard to see if you look.

26 February 2010: To build a new Town Hall

Sydney’s Town Hall is a major city landmark, a focal point in the city centre, a meeting place for Sydney.  If you haven’t arranged to meet someone on the Town Hall steps then you probably haven’t been out in Sydney.

Like many of Sydney’s landmarks, the site was battled over and mired in controversy and the design came from a competition. 

The City Council came into existence in 1842 but with no real home.  Many sites were suggested, one of the first being the old Burial Ground on George Street, next to St Andrews Cathedral.  However this was a Government site, a gazetted cemetery, albeit long since closed.  Instead the State Government suggested the site of the former Government House in Bent Street, close to the Parliament. 

The new Council was keen to stay as far away from the government part of town as possible and was keen on a site close to the commercial centre of town around George Street.

After much wrangling and site suggestions, including Hyde Park, Wynyard Square and Bent Street, the George Street site of the old Burial Ground was secured and a foundation stone set in 1868 (curiously one full year prior to the site being officially granted). 

A site does not a hall make and it took another 21 years before the completed building was opened in 1889.  Architects were sacked, engineers came and went, materials were defective, foundations undermined and managers inexperienced. 

But in November 1889 it finally opened and in opening set Sydney’s public face as we now recognise it.  It towered over a largely two storey city, it established for sure George Street as the main street and it confirmed the area around Market Street, Druitt Street and George Street as Sydney’s commercial and Municipal hub.  It also caught the St Andrews Cathedral slightly off guard, with the Cathedral spires facing away from the main street, making the building look like it sits the wrong way around.

The Town Hall is a unique public building in Sydney.  It is a building for everyone, a building built for the use of the citizens of the entire city.  This is why rallies are held in its square, marches march past the front, sports heroes are welcomed, people meet on the steps, its lit up for all types of celebrations, great lectures and recitals are held in its hall.

Sydney Town Hall
Sydney Town Hall lit up 1911

And inside it is full of treasures, either part of the built form or gifts presented to the city over the 121 years since it opened.  Beautiful carved sandstone, iron lace work, stained glass windows of exquisite detail, paintings, silver, marble, art, furniture and interiors.

The Town Hall has just been recognised as an item of state heritage significance and is open for inspection next weekend.  Go down, do yourself a favour and have a look beyond the front steps.

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