sydney life 100 years ago

Queen Victoria Building in George Street, Sydney in 1900



Previously, I wrote about what was happening in Chemistry and elsewhere at the University a hundred years ago. But away from the University. What was Sydney like then?


The Census of 1901 gave the City's population as 111, 253, although adding in areas we now regard as suburbs would give a number approaching half a million. Sydneysiders that year were celebrating Federation and a new Century and recovering from the shock of an outbreak of bubonic plague the previous year that had triggered a massive and long-overdue clean-up of the inner City. They were disarmingly proud of Sydney's new electric trams ("one of the best − if not absolutely the best − tramway systems in the world"). And of the Harbour. "What do you think of our Harbour?" they asked new arrivals, as we still do.

Someone must have warned Mark Twain about this and he was able to get in first. Just after his ship had come through the Heads. At night. According to the Sydney Morning Herald next day (16 September 1895), he leant over the rail and told reporters: "Your Harbour strikes me as being superb. I haven't seen it yet but I'm sure it's magnificent from what I've heard about it. Anyway, it seems the correct sort of thing to say on this occasion. I would also add a few words about the beauties of your Post Office but I don't like to throw my good things away on a quiet night like this."

Few at that time would have asked visitors what they thought of Sydney's Victorian terraces. And fifty years later, whole rows of them were being knocked down to make way for blocks of flats. Many have survived, however, and these days change hands for amounts that would astonish the first owners.

Another reminder of the Sydney of a hundred years ago is the Queen Victoria Building in George Street. The photo above was taken in 1900, soon after its completion. In time, the building fell into a sorry state and, for decades, tottered on the brink of demolition. Then, miraculously, it underwent something more than restoration, to a level of grandeur that would satisfy even the original designers, and re-opened as the QVB.

A block away, the Strand Arcade still links George and Pitt Streets. Opened in 1891, the Strand was always the most popular of Sydney's Victorian arcades. Somehow it has managed so far to avoid the great concrete tidal wave. Gutted by fire in the mid-1970s, it was soon restored to its original opulence.

The photo below was taken in Hyde Park by Charles Kerry, well-known at the turn of the Century for his panoramic views of Sydney. It's Sunday afternoon. The band is playing. People of all ages are chatting or strolling or just lolling about. All are in their Sunday best. See if you can spot anyone, male or female, young or old, without a hat. How well this photo captures a time and a place.


Hyde Park, Sydney



The City can thank Governor Arthur Phillip for Hyde Park and for the Domain and Botanic Gardens near by. Soon after the arrival of the First Fleet, Phillip directed that a strip of land be set aside as open space and this strip survives. More or less.

Best preserved are the Botanic Gardens, the scene early on of unsuccessful attempts to grow wheat and barley for the new Colony. Gardens in the Government Domain fared better. In 1816, the Governor, Lachlan Macquarie, opened a carriageway around the Domain and issued a public notice offering "the respectable class of inhabitants" free use of the area "for innocent recreation" but warning "idle and profligate persons" to stay away.

"Idle and profligate persons" were evidently still causing trouble in 1902 (though by then called "larrikins" and "foot-pads") when Gardens Director Joseph Maiden, in a paper to the Royal Society of NSW, set out his concerns on such matters as lighting, littering, traffic control and inappropriate development. He identified statuary as a special problem. "Statuary in public parks is often looked upon as a target for mischievous people and one has to frequently repair it." And there was also the vexed question of censorship. "A man should be able to pass through a park" he said "without seeing anything that will bring a blush to the cheek of his wife, his daughter, his sweetheart or any other woman or child."

The Botanic Gardens, you may not know, were once home to Sydney's Zoo which began there in the 1850s, moving in 1883 to the site in Moore Park now occupied by Sydney Boys' and Girls' High. Bear pits in the school grounds survive as a reminder of those days. The Zoo would move again, to Taronga Park, in 1916. Moore Park and the neighbouring Centennial Park occupy part of a parcel of land originally known as the Sydney Common, dating from 1811 and another example of Macquarie's foresight that didn't exactly win him friends back at Head Office. Seen in the photo below (from the NSW Government Printing Office) is Centennial Park a hundred years ago − then as now, "the People's Park", a place of peace and play. Down at the beach, however, rebellion was in the air.


Centennial Park, Sydney



Look at old pictures of Sydney beaches and you won't see anyone in the water. At least no adults. This is because there was a law against it. An act prohibited bathing in the sea within view of any public place between the hours of 6 am and 8 pm. Then, in 1902, the editor of a local newspaper, in a well-publicised act of civil disobedience, went for a daytime swim at Manly and got away with it. The act was changed the following year and Sydneysiders were finally allowed to go sea bathing in broad daylight, provided everyone over the age of 8 wore a neck-to-knee costume.

The photo below (from the Randwick City Library Photo Gallery) was taken soon after, at the south end of Coogee Beach. The kids are having a great time. They would not look out of place here a hundred years later. But the lady in white is very much of her time. No sign that she is succumbing yet to the call of the sea.


Coogee Beach, Sydney



The facts and photos are from:

  1. J.H. Maiden, The Parks of Sydney, J. Roy. Soc. NSW, 36 (1902), 1.
  2. E. Russell, Victorian and Edwardian Sydney, John Ferguson (1975).
  3. L.A. Gilbert, The Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney, Oxford University Press (1986).
  4. R. Whitaker, Sydneyside, Gregory's Publishing Co. (1986).
  5. A. Sharpe, Streets of Old Sydney, Atrand (1987).
  6. P. Ashton and K. Blackmore, Centennial Park: A History, NSW University Press (1988).

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