The novel Playing Beatie Bow is based on a time slip, which takes a modern girl back to the 1840s Dickens-grimy seaport neighbourhood of The Rocks. I recommend the book highly.
The top two photos are not actually of The Rocks in 1840, but a preserved shop/house of the era interpreted at Susannah Place Museum. Have a look at their site, and some of the historic photos of the neighbourhood which Ruth Park peopled for us. (Only Frank McCourt, in my experience, has painted so well, the grittiness and community which could exist side by side, in such a place.)
A walk around today's somewhat sanitized old neighbourhood yields lots of descriptive panels, with archival photos providing the before and after.
What captivated me about the area was, well, the rocks. The old buildings and even older trees seem to sprout directly from the sandstone cliff down which the early town tumbled. Ancient stone stairs, a street running through a rock tunnel created by convict labour with pick and shovel, fernss clinging to the exquistely eroded stone...all are difficult to capture in photos, but anchored in my heart forever.
The area had been embattled since the early 1900s (a bubonic plague outbreak put authorities on alert, and the 'slum' area was assumed by the state - the plans were to level the lot, and build modern high density housing.) The neighbourhood of moth-eaten buildings tumbling higgledy-piggledy down sandstone outcrops became especially endangered during the 'improvement imperative' of the 1970s -heritage armaggedon in so many neighbourhoods worldwide. Regent Park, down under.
It was a struggle to preserve the Rock's historic buildings. Admittedly, it was not heritage preservationists, but citizen activists opposed to the demolition of the old buildings providing affordable housing for the working class residents of the area, who carried the day. In response, the builders' union imposed a Green Ban; demonstrations and arrests ensued. Eventually, the ethic of renovation over removal won out, and today the Rocks is a fascinating mix of low-income housing, cafes and galleries in historic buildings, overarching green canopies, and historic pubs (two of them the oldest in Sydney.)
Let me take you on a stroll.
Trees and old architecture. Was I in my happy place? A lineup of local craft IPA's only added to the joy.
|former wool warehouse|
The plaque carved into the rock wall reads Cha. Moore, Mayor, 1867 & 1866.
A set of stone steps rises from Argyle Street. The Argyle Stairs were built in 1911 during widening of the Cut, and realignment of earlier streets. Great walk up to
|Mayor Moore takes all the credit|
The rocks of The Rocks.
|47 George Street|
The convict-hewn sandstone-built Hero of Waterloo is one of thirteen pubs in the precinct, I am told. The Hero of Waterloo features dungeon-quality sandstone block walls (by-products of the Argyle cut construction) and rumours of tunnels through which unwary drinkers found their way to sea.
|Harbour View Hotel|
|Like 'Kilroy' - the bridge looms over the Hickson Street neighbourhood|
The flamboyantly Flemish gables of the 1884/5 Australasian Steam Navigation Company here's a view) now shelter a prestigious art gallery. Ken Done is one of the country's most famous (controversial?) artists. As a result, we didn't happen in, but you might pick up a coffee mug on your next visit.
James Gibbs himself would be impressed by the the assertive facade of Police Station #4 nearby on George Street, which discouraged boozy acting out until 1974. A plaque honours the earlier occupant of the site, the 1790s First General Hospital, whose nurses were commandeered from the convict population. Here's their story. The history of the area forces one to rethink the deportation story - not all were hardened criminals who entered the city's criminal class. Many were victims of fate who later contributed their skills to the growing colony - and were welcomed for it.
A plaque nearby traces one man's journey from pickpocket to Chief Constable.
Here's a look at the streetscape. Doubtless the whole character-soaked block was destined for replacement by the kind of giants you see to the left of the photo. I added the Streetview link as I failed to get the resolutely Gothic sandstone facade of the English Scottish & Australian Chartered Bank.
Argyle Terrace (1875-77) is a residential terrace sensitively restored into galleries and accommodation. I found one of the 'luxury colonial terraces" on offer through Air BnB. How the original residents would marvel at the light and luxury. Towering in the distance, the chimney stack of the short-lived1900 George Street Electric Light Power Station.
I've become so homesick revisiting these photos, and vicariously this wonderful precinct of Sydney. If you're feeling the same (because surely you've been there, if only in imagination) you may want to venture further. Here's a walking tour I found online. Sorry about the ads, but then, the actual neighbourhood exists to recount our history - as well as to make a buck.