Sydney University 100 years ago
In 1900, the University of Sydney, approaching its 50th birthday, was still a very modest enterprise. There were 4 Faculties (Arts, Science, Medicine and Law) and the student population stood at 583. In the photo above, taken at that time from Broadway, then called George Street South, the University's Main Building sits on top of the hill. Steam motors head towards Railway Square, one pushing a ballast trailer and behind, another hauling a water sprinkler. Otherwise horses rule. Look at the roadway. Collecting samples for the manure analysis in the Senior Chemistry Prac can't have been too much trouble.
Up at the University, a long-standing problem was coming to a head. The Library needed a new home. From the start, the book collection had been housed on the first floor of the Main Building, in what later became the Senate Room. By 1900, books were spilling into other rooms and had been for 20 years. The Government now agreed to pay for a new library building, enabling the University to use as an endowed book fund a large sum of money left to it in the 1880s by Thomas Fisher, a local businessman with a soft spot for the place. So, in 1901, work began on the construction of a Gothic annex on the south side of the Quadrangle. This would become the original Fisher Library.
When the Library opened in 1909, its various features were noted with pride – the huge reading room with an open-timbered roof (surviving today as the MacLaurin Hall), the adjoining multi-tiered book stack, with electric book lifts and glass floors, and externally, an architectural style consistent with the rest of the Main Building "but more ornate in character and richer in detail. … No other building in Sydney has such a wealth of carving and grotesquerie, for, continuing the Gothic tradition, the gargoyles grin in stony ecstasy from every cornice".
Meanwhile Science Road as it came to be named was taking shape. The Macleay Museum and a building specially designed for Physics had opened in the late 1880s. Buildings for Chemistry, Engineering, Geology and Biology soon followed, six buildings for the Faculty of Science (Engineering would not become a Faculty in its own right until 1920) and all of them up and running in little more than a decade.
In the photo below, taken in the early 1890s, the tall tower on the left belongs to the Engineering Building, demolished in 1910 to make way for the Union (today called the Holme) Building. The horse in the foreground grazes in front of the Physics (now the Badham) Building. The square tower is still there. It was built to provide a line-of-sight to the Sydney Observatory and a platform for astronomical observations.
The building owed much of its design to Physics professor Richard Threlfall. Threlfall had an abiding professional interest in explosives, in spite of (maybe that should be because of) a school-boy experiment that had cost him two fingers of one hand and the top of the thumb and a finger of the other. Yet he became by all accounts a superb experimentalist. His book On Laboratory Arts was full of "clever dodges" and remained on recommended reading lists for over 30 years. He resigned in 1898 after 12 years in Sydney and returned to England where he pursued another interest, electrochemistry, through a long and successful career in industry.
Further up Science Road, facing Chemistry, was the Geology Building, the domain of T.W. Edgeworth David, another formidable figure at this time and for decades to come. A colleague later wrote of "his clear ringing voice" and "compelling eloquence" and of how completely the public's imagination was captured by his exploits. These included leading the first ascent of Mt Erebus and the first trek to the South Magnetic Pole as a member of Shackleton's 1908 Antarctic Expedition; and winning a DSO during World War I while serving as Chief Geologist to the British forces on the Western Front. His life reads like something out of a Boys' Own Annual. The cartoon of David below appeared in Hermes shortly after his return from Antarctica.
South of the Main Building at the turn of the Century stood the Medical School (now the Anderson Stuart Building). Thomas Anderson Stuart was the first Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, appointed to the Chair of Anatomy and Physiology in 1882 at age 26. "This rangy and aggressive Scot" set to work gathering support and funding for the construction of a new building. Progress was a bit slow for his liking but, by 1889, he and his staff had moved into "a magnificent and handsome structure", seen by some at the time as altogether too magnificent and handsome.
Anderson Stuart later recalled the opposition of those who believed that the proper role of the University was to provide a liberal education based on classical, literary and mathematical studies, not training in the so-called "bread studies", medicine, science and engineering. Anderson Stuart would have none of that. He wrote: "Happily it is possible to train the mind by technical learning, as well as by learning for which there is no immediate use. … It is not what is known that makes a man cultured; it is how he knows it, the method by which he approaches knowledge."
Anderson Stuart's nickname among the students was coracoid (from the Greek corax for crow or raven), given to him according to legend because of his prominent nose. He apparently didn't mind and responded by having a stone raven included among the decorations on his building. Circled in the present-day photo above and shown close-up in the inset, it stands on the gable high over the eastern entrance. Above it, his initials are carved in ornate intertwined letters. More accessible is a second raven, this one cast in bronze, that now perches on a small fountain in a corner of the recently refurbished courtyard.
The University celebrated its 50th birthday in 1902. To mark the occasion, a garden party was held in the Quadrangle and, as you see in the photo below, it was a time for parasols, top hats and frock coats. Chemistry professor Archibald Liversidge is one of the two men walking towards the camera, the one on the right.
- Original prints in the University Archives were reproduced with the help of Reference Archivist Julia Mant.
- Mr Clive Jeffery, Technical Officer in the Department of Anatomy and Histology, provided the inset photo of the stone raven.
- Hermes cartoon, 15(1) (1909), 11.
- W.R. Browne, Sir Edgeworth David, The Gazette, University of Sydney, 1(15)(1958), 214.
- G.L. Fischer, The University of Sydney 1850-1975, University of Sydney (1975).
- Ever Reaping Something New. A Science Centenary, Eds. D. Branagan and H.G. Holland, University of Sydney (1985).
- C. Turney, U. Bygott and P. Chippendale, Australia's First. A History of the University of Sydney, Vol.1, 1850-1939, University of Sydney (1991).
- Australia's First – The University of Sydney: Celebrating 150 Years, University of Sydney (2000).