Tag Archives: Sydney

15 June 2012: Crossing the mountains

Westward ho! This week on Scratching Sydney’s Surface, we’ve headed out of Sydney to cross the Blue Mountains, with a special look at the convict built Victoria Pass – 180 years old this year (2012) and still carrying traffic over the mountains.

Victoria Pass, 1923 (Blue Mountains Library, 00404404)

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1 June 2012: Sydney illuminated

Sydney’s Vivid Festival is four years old this year – a festival of ‘light, music & ideas’, one if its big attractions are the light displays, or illuminations, on the buildings that line Circular Quay. But the history of illuminating the buildings and streets of Sydney stretches back almost 150 years – to the mid 19th century – with the introduction of artificial electrical lighting.

Coronation decorations, Mark Foys Department Store, Sydney, 1937 (Home and Away – 14752, State Library of NSW)

In the 19th and 20th centuries, illumination displays tended to be reserved for celebrations – for example, visits by royalty, Anniversary Day (the precursor to today’s Australia Day), coronations of royalty, New Years Eve, the end of the first and second world wars, the Centenary of Australia’s ‘foundation’ in 1888, the Sesqui-Centenary in 1938, and more recently the 1988 Bicentenary.

Illuminations in honour of the visit of Prince Alfred in 1868 (Illustrated Sydney News, Saturday 22 February 1868)

Illuminations for these sorts of celebrations, which were usually centred on Circular Quay and Sydney Harbour, were an egalitarian form of entertainment, bringing people from all walks of life into the heart of the city, in a similar way that firework displays are a draw card both then and today.

Illumination of Sydney Town Hall for the visit of the Prince of Wales in 1920 (CRS 51/4041, City of Sydney Archives)

Illuminations in the 19th and early 20th centuries showcased the evolving technologies of artificial electrical lighting, and as such, were a signifier of the advances of the modern age. The use of illuminations paved the way for the nightlife that we enjoy in Sydney today.

But on a deeper level, perhaps light and fireworks displays reveal our unconscious fear of the night and are a way of keeping the darkness at bay – after all,  the fall of dusk signifies an ending and the night itself, with its dreams and nightmares, represent disorder, chaos and the unknown. The break of dawn, in contrast, represents a kind of rebirth with a new day.

Whatever. Bring on the night, bring on the light!

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20 April 2012: Sparky ladies

Who was Australia’s first female tradie? Who knows, but a contender for that title must surely be Florence Violet McKenzie, Australia’s first female electrical engineer.

Florence Violet McKenzie 1939, founder of the Women's Emergency Signalling Corps (Australian War Memorial)

But McKenzie had another string to her bow. She formed the Women’s Emergency Signalling Corps (WESC) in Sydney in 1939, some six months before the outbreak of the Second World War in Europe. This pioneering volunteer-run organisation was the forerunner to the Women’s Royal Australian Navy Service (WRANS). The formation of  WRANS in 1942 was one of the first avenues that enabled women to serve in the armed forces.

The Women’s Emergency Signalling Corps (WESC) was started by Florence Violet McKenzie, electrician and radio enthusiast. With the formation of the WESC, McKenzie made an invaluable contribution to the war effort by training women in a range of communications techniques including Morse code, wireless telegraphy and semaphore signalling with flags. The training rooms for the Women’s Emergency Signalling Corps were at McKenzie’s Electrical Association for Women rooms at 9 Clarence Street in Sydney.

Initially, the Signalling Corps was concerned with training women in wireless telegraphic communications so that they could relieve men to fight overseas. Regular camps were held at Thornleigh, where the women wore green military-style uniforms (designed by McKenzie); undertook military drills, parades and marches; and were trained in ‘Morse code … at various speeds, coding and decoding and electrical theory’. They were required to be able to send and receive messages at the rate of 20 words per minute.

Girl Signallers Will Help (The Australian Women's Weekly, 13 July 1940, p. 2).

Up to 3000 women received training by the Women’s Emergency Signalling Corps. But soon they were called upon to instruct servicemen and recruits in Morse code.  Over 12,000 service personnel from Australia, America and India received training from ‘Mrs Mac’s’ girls. Because the demand for training was so great, the WESC operations moved across the road to much larger premises in a former wool store at 10 Clarence Street.

When WRANS was formed in 1942, its first 14 members were drawn from the ranks of the WESC. This was largely down to the efforts of Violet McKenzie, who tirelessly lobbied the Minister for Defence for her girls to join up. Although she never received any official recognition during the war years, she was the recipient of a OBE in 1950, for her work towards the war effort. She remains a fond figure for the many man and women that she trained, both during the war and in its aftermath.

For more on the home front in Sydney during the Second World War check out the Home Front exhibition at the Museum of Sydney, which runs until September 2012.

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Friday 13 April 2012: Hidden Magic

So it’s Friday the 13th.  Are you the superstitious type?  Avoid black cats?  Don’t walk under ladders? Believe the earth is inhabited not just by us but also by unseen devils?

You are not alone in these feelings nor is it new.  For just about as long as humans have walked upright, there have been beliefs in evil spirits and attempts to find methods for keeping them at bay.

These beliefs are not often considered in the European heritage of Sydney.  The truth is that a strange practise of concealing ritual objects in the walls and secret spaces of houses to ward off evil spirits appears to have not been uncommon in colonial Sydney and indeed right up into the 1930s.

Houses all over Australia have been revealing the existence of this custom, imported from England by settlers and later migrants.  In the UK, many hundreds of houses have been found to have secret stashes of talisman like objects to ward off witches and evil spirits.  Most commonly these were things like pieces of clothing, particularly shoes or hats, dead cats or bottles of home brew potions.

The shoes and hats are thought to be used as they are very personal items, moulded by the body, containing the essence of the wearer and therefore detected by spirits easily.  If they are then concealed in hidden spaces, behind walls, under floor boards, in chimneys or roof cavities it is thought that this would confuse the spirits as to where the people were and thereby keep them away from the actual families.  In Australia (and the UK) shoes are particularly common and were apparently seen as a type of trap for the devil, a belief that harks back to a priest in England named John Schorn in the 13th Century.

Cats on the other hand had long been thought to act as witches familiars, allowing them access to houses and the people within.  They were a link to the otherworld.

This sort of behaviour can be understood in England and Europe, with centuries of myth and fairytales.  From our perspective, Sydney seems not to have these old world connections.  But old habits die hard and looking through the eyes of colonial settlers, Sydney must have been a crazy, scary place with all types of new evils lurking in the dark bush.

A historian in Newcastle (Ian Evans), who specialises in this type of research, has recorded hundreds of examples of hidden charms in houses in Newcastle, Sydney, rural NSW, Tassie and Victoria.

The houses range from simple workers cottages to grand mansions like Elizabeth Bay House, convict stations including Hyde Park Barracks and even inside the pylon of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Mostly they are a single shoe, placed somewhere that they could not have just been dropped into, like inside a chimney on a brick ledge, or in the roof cavity behind a wall, or under the floor directly between the joists.

Many of the items appear to have placed by tradesmen as houses were finished off.  As a last job, they appear to try to protect the house and its occupants from evil.

Others, such as a convict shirt and bible found stashed in the Hyde Park Barracks give an insight into the mental stress that many of these convicts were under.  Not only were they torn from family and loved ones, had to work long, hard hours and watch their back against their desperate companions, they also feared what they couldn’t see.

In fact the Barracks gave up possibly the most curious find.  During archaeological work, a matchbox with the partial skeletons of five mice was found beneath the floor on level 3 near a door leading to the dorm rooms.

A last ditch effort perhaps to keep the devil outside while they slept.

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30 March 2012: The show goes on

It’s that time of year again, and who doesn’t love Sydney’s Royal Easter Show? Not only is it fun, it’s also historical.

This year, the Royal Easter Show celebrates 189 years (give or take a few decades). Since 1823, it has displayed a little bit of rural NSW in the heart of metropolitan Sydney.

The first Agricultural Society was formed in 1822. Its primary objective was to conquer the Australian landscape by introducing European farming practices, animals and plants:

There is no Eden in nature; all is from the industry of man. We must do what all nations have done before us – collect from every quarter what is adapted to our soil and climate. We must new clothe our adopted country; we must hew down the useless gum trees, and plant the more useful fruit trees of Europe ; and   in lieu of the present thin herbage, give to our meadows the rich pasture of Britain.

The society’s first annual competitive ‘fair’ was held in October 1823 at Parramatta. According to a newspaper report written at the time, the ‘Society’s prize cattle and sheep were exhibited’. Prizes were given to ‘meritorious horses’ and cash rewards were given to high performing servants (yes, really). In addition, ‘three hundred and eighty-seven native dogs’ tails were paid for and destroyed’. Although it was hoped that the destruction of dingos would enable agriculture to flourish, the society came to a sticky end in 1836 due to drought and financial difficulties.

Judging the cakes, Royal Easter Show, 1940 (Sam Hood, SLNSW, ON 204 Box 87 / 94-99)

A new society, the Cumberland Agricultural Society, was formed in 1857; it was renamed as the Agricultural Society of New South Wales two years later. The new society held regular annual displays and competitions of agricultural produce and livestock animals from around NSW. At first, the displays were held in the Parramatta Domain but as the popularity of the event grew, a new home was found in Sydney’s Prince Alfred Park. In 1882, the show moved to Moore Park, where it stayed until 1998.

Western District exhibits at the Royal Easter Show, 1923 (State LIbrary of NSW)

During these 116 years, the Royal Easter Show was only cancelled twice. The first time was in 1919, when the large exhibition buildings at the showground were requisitioned as emergency hospitals during the influenza epidemic. The second time was during World War 2, when the entire showground was taken over by the armed forces.

Main ring at the Moore Park Showground showing the Grand Parade, 1950 (: Len Stone / Vic Solomons Collection: 203)

But because the Moore Park showground was only in use for the Easter Show two weeks of the year, what happened in the other 50 weeks?

Lots of things! The Royal Hall of Industries became a popular dance hall known as the Palais Royale in the 1920s and was later an ice skating rink.

In the 1970s, the Hordern Pavillion was converted to become a music venue.

Faye Granger of Bendigo with her brother Ivan 'Who adds some clowning to the Show's ring events".

And although the show has moved away from Moore Park to its new home at Homebush, the show goes on: animal parades, wood chopping, show jumping, showbags, amusement rides, and competitions for the best in show for wool, wine, craft, cakes and jams, but to name a few of the attractions.

The Royal Easter Show is on from 5-18 April 2012.

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24 February 2012: Wascally Wabbits

Today rabbits are a pest across Australia, causing untold environmental damage. Although they were first introduced to Australia in 1788, it took over 70 years for them to achieve the status of pest.

Rabbit and child uneasily preparing a cup of tea, 1954 (NAA)

Rabbits arrived to Sydney with the First Fleet in January 1788. They were part of a cargo of animals that included goats, horses, sheep, cows, fowls and pigs. At least five rabbits survived the voyage, and by May 1788, three of those were reportedly kept by the Governor.

In 1827, Peter Cunningham noted that ‘rabbits are bred around houses, but we have yet no wild ones in enclosures, although there is a good scope of sandy country on the sea-coast between Port Jackson and Botany Bay fit for little else than goat pasture and rabbit warrens; in which ways it may be profitably made use of, while at present it yields absolutely nothing’. (Peter Cunningham, Two Years in NSW, 1827, p. 304).

In May 1831, the Sydney Gazette reported that Alexander McLeay had built a ‘preserve, or rabbit-warren, surrounded by a substantial stone wall, and well stocked with that choice game’ on his land grant at Elizabeth Bay. He kept rabbits here for hunting, and it was said to be ‘the first, if not the only attempt of the kind in New South Wales.’

Trapper with rabbit and possum, 1907 (NAA)

Likewise, between 1857 and 1864, Thomas Holt built ‘The Warren’ at Marrickville, on the banks of the Cooks River, over 100 acres on which he bred wild rabbits for hunting. Eugene Delange also had a rabbit-warren on his land at Putney in the 1850s. There is some debate as to whether rabbits that escaped from the warrens at Marrickville and Putney led to the later rabbit plague.

From the 1850s through to the 1870s, rabbits were regularly exhibited at the Royal Agricultural Show in Sydney. But this stopped in the 1880s, when rabbits started to populate in plague proportions. The increase in numbers was largely because their natural predators, carnivorous mammals such as quolls, had been hunted by humans and other predators or killed off during land clearance . In turn, clearing the land for agriculture likewise created an ideal habitat for rabbits to feed and breed, as were the mild winters in Sydney and NSW.

In response, the NSW Government passed the 1883 Rabbit Nuisance Act and set up a Rabbit Branch as part of the Department of Mines.

But rabbits were not only a rural problem in NSW and around Australia –  for the remainder of the 19th century and into the 20th century, hundreds of thousands of rabbits entered Sydney every year. But sadly for the rabbits, most of them were dead by the time they arrived – they tended to used as a cheap food supply, or their pelts used to make hats and other textiles.

Rabbits being packed for export, 1945 (NAA)

Techniques to eradicate rabbits included trapping, shooting and poisoning. By the early 20th century, research was carried out on the biological control of rabbits on Milson Island on the Hawkesbury River. During the lean times of the economic Depression of the 1930s and the Second World War, the ‘common and for so long despised rabbit’ played an important part in ‘feeding the nation’.

It was not until the introduction of myxomatosis in the 1950s that the population numbers of rabbits began to drop drastically.

Rabbits still remain a pest, despite myxomatosis and more recently the calicivirus, but many keep them as pets and they even compete in show jumping at the Royal Easter Show these days…


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10 February 2012: Quong Tart

Mei Quong Tart (1850-1903) was a well-known member of the Chinese community who bridged Chinese and non-Chinese worlds in Sydney in the late 19th century. He is generally regarded to have been ‘the only Chinese who succeeded in being accepted fully by the NSW community’.

Quong Tart - oil portrait, ca. 1880s (State Library of NSW)

He arrived to Australia when he was just nine years-old, living on the Braidwood goldfields until early 30s. He became naturalised in 1871. During this time, Mei Quong Tart become a wealthy and a well respected young man in Braidwood – his wealth had came from high yielding gold leases between 1872 and 1877, and it was said that he employed up to 200 men, both Chinese and European, to extract the gold.

Quong Tart travelled to China to visit his family in April 1881, but also to ‘perfect arrangements’ in order to set himself up ‘in the metropolis as a tea and silk merchant’. He opened a tea and silk shop in the Sydney Arcade in late 1881. It proved very popular, and he eventually he opened a chain of tea shops including at the Royal Arcade, Moore Park Zoological Gardens and Haymarket. An ‘elaborate restaurant’ was opened at 137 King Street in 1889 and the Elite Dining Hall and Tea Rooms in the Queen Victoria Building, was formally opened by the Mayor Matthew Harris in 1898.

Mei Quong Tart was known to be a good employer at his tea rooms – he gave his staff ‘time off for shopping and sick leave with pay’ – and the service was both professional and egalitarian. According to his wife Margaret, ‘his employees were ordered to treat all alike, whether they wore silk dresses or cheap prints’.

Apart from running successful tea shops all over Sydney, Quong Tart had a roaring trade in packet tea.

But Tart did not rest on his laurels as far as his business success was concerned. It appears from all accounts that he had a strong sense of social justice and civic duty from an early age and a need to give back to the community that he had been welcomed into.

Quong Tart, 1887-1888, as drawn by Walter Syer (State Library of NSW,P2 / 320)

Mei Quong Tart was active in the campaign against the importation of opium, he lobbied on behalf of the Chinese passengers aboard the steamer Afghan when it sailed into Sydney Harbour in May 1888 who were refused permission to land, and provided feasts for inmates at the Parramatta and Newington destitute asylums.

Trade mark number 592 - Quong Tart & Co, 1882 (National Archives of Australia, SP1006/14, 2 PART 1)

From 1881 when he first moved to Sydney to set up his chain of tea shops, Mei Quong Tart was a regular fixture at civic and vice-regal events, and would often turn up dressed in traditional Chinese costume. For example, when the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall visited in June 1901, there was a levee at Government House in Sydney and ‘the address from the Chinese residents of Sydney was presented by Mr Quong Tart, who wore his robes and peacock’s feather as a Mandarin’.

Quong Tart moved between two cultures. He was identifiably a Chinese man, who dressed in traditional costume at all manner of civic and social functions and decked out his tea shops with Chinese art and decorations. But he was married to an English woman, was socially well-connected in Sydney’s legal fraternity and mixed in high society and was in most regards was assimilated into and accepted by European society.

Quong Tart and his wife Margaret at Gallop House, Ashfield (State Library of NSW, SV1A/ASHF/2)

These factors caused tensions with the Chinese community regards to his role as a community leader and cultural ambassador. Sydney’s Chinese community in the 19th century was riven by ‘factions’ – these differences within the community were along class lines, along cultural lines and along political lines – and despite his representations on behalf of the Chinese community, he was ‘separated by a wide social and cultural gap’ from them.

Quong Tart was brutally attacked at his tearooms at the Queen Victoria Building in August 1902 – an intruder entered his office, pretending to be a detective and when Tart’s back was turned, beat him around the head with an iron bar. Although he his assailant was captured, arrested and gaoled, no definite motive was found. Quong briefly recovered from the attack, and was feted at a presentation at Sydney Town Hall. But on 26 July 1903, he died from pleurisy at his family home in Ashfield. Quong Tart’s death was undoubtedly caused by complications from the injuries from his attack.

Mei Quong Tart was a prominent – and accepted – member of Sydney society, active in the anti-opium campaign and a notable philanthropist. He had his feet in two worlds  and was both assimilated and exotic. He was a figure of fascination, not only during his lifetime but long after his death, and remains so.


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