Scratching Sydney’s Surface

Exploring hidden Sydney



7 October 2011: Gone to the dogs

Greyhound coursing was originally a blood sport for the wealthy upper classes, and was especially popular in the mid 19th century. The object of the sport was to pit two dogs against each other, in either an open or an enclosed paddock, to chase a live hare. A judge followed the greyhounds on horseback, who was in turn was followed by the spectating crowd. Coursing was intended to test the speed, agility and endurance of the dogs, who hunted the hare by sight (not smell), although extra points were awarded for a kill. There was provision for the hare to escape (similar to a hunt), and if this happened, the match was declared finished.

Greyhound coursing in NSW during the 19th century ( Illustrated Sydney News c1875, NLA, nla.pic-an9653862)

One of the main promoters of greyhound coursing in Sydney was Walter Lamb, a businessman and pastoralist. He introduced a more regulated form of coursing in the 1850s, called Plumpton coursing, named after his estate near Rooty Hill. In this type of coursing, the dogs competed against each other in a rectangular field, and the judge presided from a tower set at one side of the track. This change in the rules meant that coursing became more of a ‘spectator and gambling’ sport. And in 1906, in a bid to regulate gambling, coursing was restricted to licensed grounds and there were a limited number of racing dates. These restrictions were also applied to trotting and racing horses.

Monkeys ride on the backs of greyhounds as they jump the hurdles at Shepherd’s Bush Greyhound track at Mascot, Sydney, 1928 (NLA, nla.pic-vn3308231)

In 1927, so-called mechanical ‘tin hare’ racing was introduced to NSW by the shady figure of Frederick Shaver Swindell. The American born impresario was more commonly known as  ‘Judge’ Swindell. The ‘tin hare’ had been invented by Owen P. Smith in 1910, and was popular in America and England following the First World War.

Instead of the dogs chasing a live animal, they instead chased a mechanically propelled lure which was mounted on a track. The greatest change to the sport was that it became a race, not a hunt, with up to eight dogs competing against each other.

With the introduction of mechanical lures to replace live hares in 1927, greyhound racing became an immensely popular working class pastime.  Former Premier of NSW, Jack Lang, called the greyhound the ‘working man’s racehorse’. For breeders and trainers, the greyhound was easy to keep in small backyards in the inner city, the dogs were cheap to feed, groom and train, and they offered the opportunity of wealth to the everyman. For animal welfare groups, the innovation let the rabbits and hares off the hook.

Swindell formed a proprietary company, whereby shareholders received profits, to promote the new sport. The first race using the ‘tin hare’ lure was held ‘under lights’ at Harold Park in May 1927. It proved immediately popular, attracting crowds of up to 30,000 people, with over 180 bookies on the grounds to take bets. In 1928, a second greyhound track was opened at Mascot, known as Shepherd’s Bush.

Greyhound racing, especially evening race meetings, appealed to the largely working class crowds because it didn’t eat into their work hours. Moreover, there were no toffee upper classes in attendance to ruin their fun,  the admission prices were cheap and punters were able to bet in small amounts.

Greyhound racing at Wentworth Park, 1949 (NAA A1200, L12271)

But this ‘sport of the masses’ quickly drew critics. For the conservatives, this criticism was based on moral outrage at the gambling habits of the working classes, although the Australian Jockey Club were none too pleased by the competition with its audience for horse racing.

In October 1927, the incoming Bavin government made gambling after sunset illegal which meant that there could be no evening greyhound races. The government also restricted the number of licensed venues in Sydney. The sport languished somewhat, although it is likely that unofficial coursing was taking place throughout Sydney. Jack Lang was re-elected in 1930 and legalised gambling at greyhound race meetings.  But his government’s associations with Swindell, who had been implicated in allegations of bribery and share manipulation in his proprietary company, led to a Royal Commission in 1932 into both greyhound racing and fruit machines.

Lang was dismissed from office soon after, and although the new government vowed to crack down on the gambling associated with the greyhounds, the sport continued and became increasingly popular. A second greyhound track was opened at Wentworth Park in 1938. Between the 1950s and 70s, the race meetings at both Harold Park and Wentworth attracted crowds of up 8,000.

The last greyhounds were raced at Harold Park in 1987, when operations were moved to Wentworth Park.  Although a large grandstand was built here in anticipation of ever increasing crowds, the legalisation of off-course betting – which meant that you didn’t have to go to the track to place a bet – meant that the crowds vanished almost overnight.

While you won’t see the crowds of yesteryear at the ‘Wenty Dogs’ these days, the sport of greyhound racing continues to put over $50 million into the NSW state coffers each year.  Pity they are not nicer to the dogs!


23 September 2011: Sydney’s Flying Boats

There has been a lot of angst in recent years about Sydney’s single international airport. Surely a city of the size and stature of Sydney should have a second airport capable of handling international flights.

Curiously, once upon a time Sydney did have a second international airport, as close to the city as you could get: Rose Bay.  Between 1938 and 1974 Rose Bay operated as Sydney’s flying boat base with flights to London, Asia, New Zealand and the South Pacific.

The Coolangatta takes flight from Rose Bay c1939

Flying boats were all the rage in the years prior to World War II.  With domestic air travel in its infancy and few large planes capable of long haul flights, flying boats were big enough and powerful enough to cover distance with enough room for passenger comfort.

The first large flying boat, the Empire Airlines boat Centaurus arrived from England on a survey mission for the proposed route in January 1937.

The public hype was enough to attract 50,000 people to the harbour to see it land.  When finished, the Rose Bay base included a large hanger on land, with slipways and terminal facilities for the boats and passengers.  The start of the service also saw the QANTAS headquarters move from Brisbane to Sydney where it remains.

The first through service from Sydney to Southampton flew in July 1938 with the Empire Flying Boat and Air Mail Service Cooee flying a first class service with 30 stops between Sydney and London.  Up the east coast, the boats then crossed the Timor Sea heading to Singapore, before hopping across Asia, the Middle East and Europe for a ten day trip.  Set downs included the Sea of Galilee and a lake in central Iran.

The flying boats took 24 passengers with sleeping accommodation for 16.  They included a galley where food was prepared, a promenade deck where passengers could stretch their legs, have a drink or even play quoits or putt golf (at least they could in the promotional adverts!).

The flights operated from the Australian end by QANTAS, also included a steward, the first on Australian planes.  Breakfast and lunch were served on board, while passengers were accommodated in first class hotels at the end of each flying day.

Two Qantas flying boats sit at anchor at Rose Bay airport, c1938

It was a bit pricey though with tickets costing around twice the average annual wage.  A second service between Sydney and Auckland started in 1940, with South Pacific runs and Timor flights (using Catalina’s) soon following.

The service had hardly been running when war broke out in Europe.  Although this was no real impediment (other than a re-routing of flights), war in Asia from 1941 was a different prospect.  Suddenly the service was frontline and involved in evacuating civilians out of Asia in advance of the Japanese invasion (about 8000 out of Singapore alone).

In January 1942 the flying boat Corio was shot down, with only 5 of the 18 on board surviving.  By March 1942 the international flying boat service was severed, the RAAF had commandeered aircraft and QANTAS had lost 5 of 10 boats.  Fitted with new, longer range Catalina’s however, the service was back in the air to Europe by mid 1943.  Those that flew the route were inducted into the Secret Order of the Double Sunrise, signifying them spending more than 24 hours continuously in the air.

With the end of war the civilian flying boats restarted but now in competition with long range land planes, mostly converted bombers.  Using Catalina’s the service now took 5 ½ days with new routes opening to Noumea and Fiji.

In 1955 QANTAS discontinued the flying boat service, selling its aircraft to Ansett Airways who continued the service to the South Pacific until the last flights to Norfolk Island and Lord Howe left Rose Bay in 1974.

These were not only the last for Sydney but the last flying boat service in the world; a curious cross-over between the shipping lines and the age of air travel.

Although the boats are gone the hint of them remains, with Catalina’s restaurant named in memory and the float plane service still flying out of Rose Bay.

Is it worth putting Rose Bay forward once more in the second airport debate I wonder?

9 September 2011: Famine and feast

From the time the first 759 convicts of the First Fleet set foot on the ships that would take them half way around the world, they were fed on rations from ‘the store’. On their voyage to the penal colony of NSW and once ashore in Sydney Cove, they were given the standard Naval Board rations which included 3.6 kg of flour or ships biscuit, 3.2 kg of salted beef (or around half that quantity of salted pork),’three pints of dried pease’ and 170 g of salted butter per week.

Maize, one of the staples in the early colony of NSW, as depicted by Emily Anne Manning in her sketchbook with scenes in Europe and New South Wales, 1836-39 (SLNSW PXB 524)

This was a generous diet compared to what they would eat (or not eat) in later years, and was notable for the inclusion of butter and dried peas!

On the journey between England and Australia, Governor Arthur Phillip stopped at Rio in South America and at the Cape of Good Hope in Africa to pick up fresh supplies of fruit and vegetables. This ensured that passengers, both convict and free settlers, didn’t succumb to scurvy or other illnesses caused by vitamin deficiencies.

But food was not the only means of keeping the First Fleet convicts alive. Before embarkation, they were screened for infectious disease and their general health was also checked, to ensure they were both fit enough to survive the six month journey to Australia and were a viable labour force on arrival to the new penal colony of NSW.

Food shortages began as soon as the First Fleet landed at Sydney Cove. There were only limited supplies bought to Australia as it was hoped that the colony would be self-sufficient within three years. To this end, animals (including cows, pigs, ducks and rabbits), plants and seeds for growing crops of fruit, vegetables and grains were part of the cargo. But the cows ran away, the rabbits died and the seed spoiled and was planted in high summer, and didn’t take. Not a good start!

Supplies had to be rationed to make sure that there was enough food to go around. The ‘dietary scale’ had to be reduced on a frequent basis. In November 1789, the rations for men were cut by one third. By April the following year, the convicts were on ‘short rations’ of 1.1 kg of flour, 907 g of salt pork and 2 pounds of rice per person, weekly. Convicts experienced these privations of limited rations despite the abundant food growing locally, such as warrigal greens, native cherries, seafood and kangaroo.

This situation wasn’t helped with the arrival of the Second Fleet in June 1790.  Of the over 1000 convicts that boarded the ships in England, more than 250 had died en-route. Around half of those who survived the journey were extremely unwell on arrival, and became a drain on the already stretched resources of the colony – which was about to head into drought!

Despite the ‘hungry years’ of 1788-1792, the colony survived. And things have certainly changed over the past 200 years – no rations for us now, not since the Second World War. Indeed, we have an abundance of fresh produce thanks to irrigation and the development of agricultural and farming practices.  And happily, most of us are happy to eat ‘bush tucker’ too… Kangaroo and native spinach anyone?


2 September 2011: The world’s oldest profession

With the current fascination with the criminal underworld of Sydney’s 1930s as portrayed in the Underbelly Razor series, it might be worth taking a look at one of the business models that financed the whole thing-Prostitution.  It all looks very glamorous on the telly, but of course it was often far from it.

Surprisingly enough to many, prostitution has never been illegal in NSW, although there have been plenty of laws targeting associated activities of the sex trade that have made this type of employment illicit, underground and prone to corruption and criminal activity.

Whether or not it is the world’s oldest profession, it has had a long history in Australia.  As early as the 1820s it is thought there were at least 20 brothels operating in Sydney.  It is not hard to imagine, with a disproportionately large male population, many being single, ex-convicts with few prospects of finding a wife.  By 1859 a Select Committee into the Condition of the Working Classes, recorded with some alarm the highly visible nature of the industry on Sydney’s streets, girls were working from Hyde Park, the Domain and in Pitt Street.

There was little glamour about it, with many of them being young, some underage and almost all destitute or on the verges.  Prostitution is a dangerous business, especially for those women on the streets. Historically brothels offered some degree of protection, as indeed they still do.  By the late 19th century there was a conservative estimate of 2-3000 prostitutes working in the inner city suburbs.

Most women come into the industry for the money.  With this in mind, it is no wonder that in the first half of the 20th century, when the inner city areas of Darlinghurst, Woolloomooloo and Surry Hills were some of Sydney’s poorest suburbs they were also the red light district for the city. 

In 1904 it was estimated that 57 brothels were operating in Surry Hills alone, with a number of streets, such as Palmer, Riley and Albion Streets, Woods Lane and others gaining a reputation for their brothels.

Wood's Lane, Darlinghurst. Notorious for its brothels and working girls from the 1920s until the 1970s

 Police and law enforcers have employed a series of laws to try to control the industry: the 1908 Summary Offences Act made it illegal for men to earn a living from the earnings of prostitutes and brothel-keeping as well as outlawing soliciting.  It was the men part of the law that left it open for the likes of Kate Leigh, Tilly Devine and other enterprising women in the 1920s and 1930s to operate brothels and run the trade (as well as the underworld more generally).  The fines associated with the offence also drove small operators out of the business, concentrating the trade into the hands of larger operators like Devine et al and further into the criminal underworld for protection.  Later laws included consorting with criminals and keeping a disorderly house as offences to target the trade.

As per usual it was the working girl that took much of the brunt. While people like Tilly and Kate appear to be strong women in control, they gained that position through the same poor and brutal treatment of many of the women who worked for them.  Cocaine addiction was a prime motivator for keeping the working girls working. And as Kate and Tilly were the main suppliers of the drug, the girls stayed around whatever the conditions.  Plenty were bashed, razored, shot or murdered plying their trade.

Prostitution flourished through World War II and boomed in the Vietnam years, although since then it has been in a holding pattern.  While the Kings Cross area, Surry Hills and East Sydney are still the place people think about as Sydney’s red light hub, the trade is spread across the entire city with an increasing number of brothels and massage parlours in Sydney’s inner west and outer suburbs.

26 August 2011: Urn burial

Today in Australia, the most common ways we deal with disposing with the remains of our dearly departed are interment (burial) and cremation. But step back 100 years, and cremation was rarely practiced at all. Although allowed under law in NSW – the 1896 Public Health Act – there was no purpose-built crematorium until 1925.

The campaign to introduce cremation to NSW was led by John Mildred Creed, who moved to Sydney in the 1860s. An English-born medical doctor and a member of the Legislative Council from 1885 until his death in 1930, he was a tireless social reformer who had a number of bees in his bonnet. Apart from cremation, he supported the registration of doctors and campaigned for the construction of a purpose-built institution for the care and cure of inebriates on Peat Island.

Creed was elected to the Legislative Council in 1885, and introduced the first cremation bill the following year. Nicknamed the ‘father of cremation’, he promoted ‘urn burials’ in preference to interment on public health grounds. By the late 19th century, most of Sydney’s burial grounds in the urban areas were overcrowded and insanitary. There were reports in the local press that they enabled the spread of infectious diseases.

But Creed’s proposed legislation met with stiff opposition from the outset – both in the parliament and in the broader society. Although it was acknowledged that Sydney’s cemeteries were poorly managed, sensibilities towards death and dying were very different to what they are today. In the 19th century, people had a strong emotional connection to burial places and its associated headstones, which was considered as sacred or hallowed ground. As memorials to the dead, they offered the mourning family and friends a place of reflection and remembrance.

Landscaped grounds of the Northern Suburbs Crematorium, mid 1930s (Harold Cazneaux, State Library of NSW - PXD 806 / 40-132)

Creed’s bill was overturned, but despite this, he continued with his campaign to introduce cremation on public health grounds. But his supporters often had other reasons for promoting the introduction of cremation. For some there were pragmatic concerns – cemeteries took up valuable real estate which got in the way of urban development. Others supported cremation on religious or philosophical grounds, such as the Unitarians or the Theosophists.

The campaign to introduce cremation was revived just before the First World War, in part due to the outbreak of Bubonic Plague in Sydney in 1900. In 1908, the Cremation Society of NSW was formed, and began a pamphleteering campaign that promoted cremation as modern and progressive. Although the outbreak of the war in 1914 put an end to the nascent movement, momentum increased following the war. The 20th century marked the ‘end of the elaborate Victorian funeral and mourning ritual’. This was mainly due to the vast losses sustained during the war and in the Influenza pandemic of 1919, and the associated simplicity and restraint in both funeral practice and cemetery design. Cremation was recast as modern, with fire considered cleansing rather than barbaric.

In 1918, the State Government agreed to the demands of the Cremation Society of NSW to hand over 4 acres of land within the Rookwood Necropolis, although this did meet with some opposition from locals, due to its visible location on a hill and fears about smoke from the chimney.

Northern Suburbs Crematorium, mid 1930s (Harold Cazneaux, State Library of NSW - PXD 806 / 40-132)

Most of the people who had been associated with the Cremation movement were prominent social figures in Sydney. The NSW Crematorium Company was formed in 1922 by key members from the Society, with the objective of overseeing the construction of a crematorium in Sydney. In 1923, the Cremation Society of Australia was formed, with a branch in Sydney. Creed, now in his 80s, remained at the helm.

Frank l’Anson Bloomfield was appointed as architect for the Company. In 1924, he travelled overseas to England, Europe and America to study the latest in crematoria design. The following year, he prepared his design for the crematorium at Rookwood.

The building destined for Rookwood was to have ‘stateliness and beauty’. But it was also practical, as it allowed for extensions in anticipation of the growing popularity of cremation practice.

Its design was intended to be modern and secular, based on Northern Italian domestic-scale architecture – far removed from the Gothic excesses of the late 19th century. To this end, there was no overt religious symbolism, as it was intended the services would welcome all denominations. The first cremation took place on 28 May 1925, and the building was completed in July 1926. There were 138 cremations in this year, and by 1930, there were up to 500 cremations.

In 1933, Bloomfield’s second crematorium at North Ryde, the Northern Suburbs Crematorium, was built. It was followed by a third crematorium for Sydney at Woranora in 1934. The popularity of cremation increased over the 20th century, such that today, around half of us will have an ‘urn burial’.

12 August 2011: Running up that Hill

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.

5 August 2011: A load of rubbish

The collection and disposal of the things we don’t want or need anymore – including left-over or rotten food, old clothes or broken household goods –  is a universal issue, across both cultures and time. In Sydney, we have dealt with our waste in a variety of ways including shell middens, cesspits, landfill and incineration.

Rubbish punt at Buckles Wharf at Blackwattle Bay, 1913 (City of Sydney, SRC5970)

In the late 18th and early 19th century, the citizens of Sydney managed the disposal of their own refuse. The population and size of the city was relatively small, and domestic waste, most of it organic – kitchen slops, sewage, broken crockery, old shoes and worn out clothing – was a private affair. For many, the solution was a cesspit or privy which was dug into the yard space behind the main house. Lime or carbolic acid was added to break down the material and to reduce the smell.

"Fowlers Tip", Camperdown c1920s (City of Sydney Archives, CRS 51/3996)

But as the population of the city grew over the 19th century, and as its limits extended, how best to dispose of waste became a vexed question.

From the 1840s, with the creation of municipal authorities to administer Sydney and its suburbs, it was increasingly a public issue, largely because of its effects on the overall health of the population.

From the mid 19th century through to the mid 20th century, household rubbish collection in the Sydney metropolitan area was ad hoc at best. The methods used to dispose of the waste once collected were similarly haphazard, and included tipping, burning and dumping 5 miles out to sea via a ‘rubbish punt’.

Most of the waste collected in inner Sydney was dumped into a ‘tip’ at Moore Park, and sometimes this was used to fill in land by private landholders. However, household and industrial rubbish was also used by the Colonial government for land reclamation works. For example, waste was used in the reclamation works at the headwaters of Darling Harbour in the late 19th century, to allow for the construction of a rail network for the shipping port here.

Snelgrove garbage lorry, c1930s (City of Sydney Archives, NSCA CRS 538/389)

In 1901, with the outbreak of  the Bubonic Plague in Sydney, the hygienic disposal of rubbish became a key public health concern. Incineration was decided upon as the most effective solution, and in 1901, a ‘destructor’ was built at Moore Park alongside the tip. To supplement it, another destructor was built at Pyrmont by 1910.

By the early 1930s, the Commonwealth Government legislated that rubbish dumped at sea had to travel 15 miles past Sydney Heads (previously it had been 5 miles). This made incineration an increasingly attractive option for many municipalities.

In 1926, John Boadle came up with a patented design for an incinerator – in this design, rubbish was gravity-fed into the incinerator so that it combusted at extremely high temperatures and produced minimal smoke. With Russian-born Nisson Leonard-Kanevsky, the Reverbatory Incinerator and Engineering Company (RIECo) was formed. They teamed up with American-born architect, Walter Burley Griffin and his partner Eric Nicholls to design them.

Alternative RIECo. tender design Willoughby Incinerator, 1933 (National Library of Australia)

RIECo designed and built 18 ‘destructors’ throughout Australia (of these 13 were designed by Griffin and Nicholls), including ones at Willoughby, Glebe and Pyrmont. Despite being extremely effective, all of these ‘destructors’  had 30 year lifespans at most, due to concerns about air pollution. Of the original 13 designed by Griffin and Nichols, only 7 remain, some of them adaptively re-used, others in disrepair, all of them memorials to garbage!

29 July 2011: Mining Sydney

Until recently, the presence of large coal reserves under Sydney was a largely forgotten part of the city’s history.

This year the presence of coal has been in the news once more with the possibility of coal seam gas wells being sunk in the inner city suburb of St Peters. Many residents think that this type of heavy industry is not appropriate for the city, especially in such a densely populated part of it and are surprised to realise that a coal gas company would even have a license to search for gas under the city.

As is so often the case in Sydney, this is not the first time that coal has been searched for or even mined under Sydney.

In 1847, after coal had been discovered to the south at Coal Cliff and north at Newcastle, it was first seriously proposed that coal could also be under Sydney by amateur geologist Rev. WB Clark and was later confirmed by the NSW Government Geologist.

Following up on this, Mr RD Adams applied for a licence in 1874 and got mining rights for over 10,000 acres under Sydney Harbour. This covered virtually the entire harbour area.

To see if there was actually any coal, the first exploratory bores were sunk in Newington and Botany in 1878, then Moore Park in 1879 followed by Narrabeen and Rose Bay in 1880–none struck coal. However bore shafts at Helensburgh, Sutherland and Moorebank did strike coal, proving Clark’s earlier theory.

Sinking the drill at Cremorne 1891

Coal was an important component to 19th century industry and to have a supply in the centre of Sydney could cut down costs for transport and would be a huge benefit to local factories.

In 1890 a syndicate was formed to mine the seam. The Sydney and Port Hacking Coal Company Ltd first began boring for coal at Cremorne Point on Sydney’s lower north shore in September 1890, striking coal at 2801 feet, or about 850 metres below the surface.

Sadly this was poor quality and so a second shaft was sunk in 1893 nearby, hitting excellent quality coal for household and industrial use. It was estimated that there was over 113 million tons available, making it one of the largest possible mine sites in the Southern Hemisphere at that time.

The future of Cremorne as imagined by the Illustrated Sydney News, Dec 1893

However problems with the surface works, the depth of the harbour for shipping and a fierce local campaign against the development of the mine and the despoliation of the harbour setting in an increasingly upper class area saw the project abandoned and transferred in 1896.

The new site was on Balmain peninsula at Birchgrove. In 1896 work on sinking shafts and building the surface works began, with the newly renamed Sydney Harbour Collieries Ltd, opening the ‘Birthday’ shaft in 1897 and the jubilee shaft a few years later, both named in honour of Queen Victoria (for her birthday and her Diamond Jubilee).  The mine was ideally located on the end of the peninsula, with ships able to load coal direct from the pit. The coal quality was high enough for it to be used by the Australian Navy and by the Canadian Government shipping lines, amongst others.

Although the mine closed between 1915 and 1923, by 1926 it employed over 350 men, 200 who worked underground, although only a few of these actually worked at the narrow coal face, the rest being employed laying tramlines, timbering tunnels and other essential site works.  Work was hot, dirty and often dangerous, with a number of fatal accidents recorded during its working life.

Balmain mine workings 1926 with the poppet head, miners and props for the tunnels

The mine workings were run by electricity, with elevators to take the men up and down the 900 metre shaft, electric lights and battery lamps lit the underground brick tunnel entrance and the long tunnel that ran half a mile to the workings, with electrical motors driving the pumps and the tramway.

However close to the face, pits ponies were used to haul the coal-skips to the tramway. The ponies lived and worked underground, never seeing the light of day.

As an added bonus, the temperature down below was high enough that at least some of the miners were reported to work in the nude. As one reporter said in 1926 ‘what does it matter? There is no one to shock’.

Despite the location, the quality of coal and the liberal dress policy all good things come to an end. In 1930 the license was not renewed and the mine closed in 1931. In 1945 the mines were sealed for good and people forgot that Sydney is built on coal.

22 July 2011: Coffee palaces

More here on coffee drinking habits in Sydney.

Grand Central Coffee Palace, 1880s

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