Tag Archives: Sydney

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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28 October 2011: Isolation and cure

The ‘prevention of contagion through quarantine’ was one of the earliest public health initiatives to be carried out in NSW. The northern headland at the entrance to Sydney Harbour was set aside for quarantine purposes in the late 1830s. Known as North Head Quarantine Station, it was the first quarantine station in Australia. It remained in operation through until 1984.

North Head – named because it is the northernmost headland at the entrance to Sydney Harbour – was chosen as a quarantine ground and hospital because it was relatively isolated. Although difficult to access by road, one of the reasons for choosing this site is that it had water access, and a place where ships could berth.

From the 1830s, any ship entering Sydney Harbour with infectious diseases on board – either suspected or diagnosed – had to be quarantined at North Head for up to 40 days. The Quarantine Station was intended for the containment and treatment of people who had infectious diseases as well as those who came in contact with them. Once cleared of disease, the new arrivals were able to move into society.

In the period from 1788 through to the 1820s, the quarantine of ship stock, crew and passengers in NSW had been at the discretion of the Governor. Its application had been ad hoc and informal, largely because most of the ships coming to Sydney were convict transports. This all changed when free settlers arrived to NSW in greater numbers.

In 1825, the English Parliament had passed quarantine legislation which automatically became law in NSW. But in 1832, NSW passed its own Quarantine Act. With this new legislation in place, quarantine became a statutory requirement for all ships entering Sydney Harbour.

The new legislation streamlined the process for preventing the spread of infectious disease through quarantine. This was a time when most of the ships arriving to Sydney carried either free settlers or commercial cargo, and delays in disembarking passengers and cargo meant lost time and money. The shipping companies sought to recoup these losses by charging a compensation fee known as demurrage.

North Head Quarantine Station 1909 (National Archives of Australia)

NSW maintained its  policy of quarantine for identifying, separating, containing and treating those with an infectious disease, or those who had come into contact with them, throughout the 19th century. In comparison, quarantine was phased out in England as a public health measure during this time.

This difference in practice was largely because the only way to travel to Australia was by boat in the 19th century. The long travel time from England or Europe meant any shipboard diseases could be detectable. The types of diseases prevalent in this period included whooping-cough, typhoid, smallpox, measles and cholera.

Doctors & nurses at Quarantine Station dressed for protection in 1919 (Manly Local Studies Image Library)

As commercial shipping to NSW increased over the 19th century, and as more people immigrated here, the Quarantine Station at North Head expanded to meet the need. In 1909, quarantine became a Commonwealth responsibility, and two years later, the Quarantine Station at North Head was transferred to the ownership of the Commonwealth Government.

There were a number of outbreaks of infectious disease in the early 20th century, which added to the pressure for space at North Head. These included the annual outbreaks of Bubonic Plague from 1900 through to the early 1920s, a smallpox epidemic in 1913-16 and the Spanish Influenza pandemic of 1919.

From the early 1920s until the mid 1980s, there was a dramatic drop in the number of people sent to the North Head Quarantine Station, even though arrivals to Australia had increased. This change was in part due to a better understanding of the aetiologies (or causes) of infectious disease, and how its spread was related to hygiene and sanitation. As well, vaccines had been developed for some infectious diseases by this time. In more recent times, travellers to Australia arrived by plane. Between the 1830s and 1984, around 580 vessels were quarantined at North Head, as compared with only four ships between 1946 and 1980.

North Head Quarantine Station was closed in 1984, and the land and buildings here reverted to the ownership of the National Parks and Wildlife Service. A fancy hotel and conference centre now occupies the former quarantine buildings, and there are regular nightly ghost tours, if that sort of thing takes your fancy…


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14 October 2011: a fool and his money

Like it or not, gambling has been part of Australian cultural life for over 200 years. Attitudes, traditions and practices were transported and transplanted here along with the convict cargo, but Australia soon developed its own forms of gambling.

Gambling was very much a feature of the Industrial Revolution. It was reliant on working people having a disposable income to spend and the leisure time in which to spend it. The many types of betting and gaming that became popular in the 19th century in Australia, England and America included fan tan, pak-ah-pu, bingo, black jack, cards, horse racing, greyhound racing, and games of chance.

Harlem Blackbird Nat Cole playing a poker machine, 1955 (State Library of NSW)

But those in authority tended to have an ambivalent attitude towards gambling, teetering between toleration and punishment. For the most part, gambling was considered to be a social problem usually based on a dim perception of the working classes and what they got up to. But while gambling was generally condemned, not all its forms were declared illegal.

But to the topic at hand: poker machines.

Poker machines can trace their history to the ‘slot machine’ invented in America by Charles Fey in the late 19th century. They were also called ‘fruit machines’, ‘jackpot machines’ and ‘poker machines’, and were nicknamed the ‘one armed bandit’ because of they way they were played.

Poker machines offers the player a  game of chance: a machine has three reels with up to 10 pictures on each which spin when a coin is inserted, and a lever is pulled or a button is pushed. The machines ‘pay out’ or ‘jackpot’ when three pictures to line up vertically.

Although poker machines were illegal in NSW until 1956, some of the first poker machines were imported here from Chicago  in 1929 by Lionel L Smith of Automatic Machines Ltd. The machines were installed in various pubs and hotels around Sydney, and protection money was collected from the publications as immunity from prosecution. When the poker machines were removed from these drinking establishments – they were outlawed under both the Liquor Act and the Gaming Act – the Hospitals Commission was approached.

The plan was  to install the ‘fruit machines’ in the State’s hospitals as a way of raising funds. This plan soon came unstuck and it led to a royal commission into  fruit machines and greyhound racing, and NSW Premier Jack Lang’s policy of  raising Government funding through revenue from gambling. But after 1956, when poker machines became legal, they became a socially acceptable form of gambling and the associated stigma faded. Today, the NSW Government rakes in millions of dollars from the proceeds from gambling, around 75% from clubs and the rest from pubs.

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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!

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