Historic Sydney

This is my first post in a while. I haven’t been feeling well and to make things worse I’ve been having computer problems as well. I can barely use my computer at the moment; it makes a constant grinding noise and just crashes without warning. I even lost some of my work yesterday when it crashed. No backups. Ouch. I’ve been putting it off but I’ll have to get it looked at later this week. Hopefully it won’t be too expensive to fix.

I’ve got a pile of emails and comments in my inbox I haven’t been able to get to yet (sorry!) but one good thing is it’s given me more time to write. I’ve finally been able to develop a few ideas further and I also started an early draft of a new story which is going well so far.

One of the stories I’ve been working on is based on an older idea, about a man who wakes from a coma only to find that the world he knew is gone. I haven’t had much time to work on it previously but I’ve always liked the idea and wanted to develop it further. At its heart it’s about exploring our world through the eyes of a stranger and it’s still only in the early stages but already it feels quite different to anything I’ve written before. I could see it being a novel one day.

I’ve been doing some research for the story (when my computer’s been working anyway), looking at how different trends change over time, and The Commons on Flickr has been an excellent resource. If you don’t use Flickr, The Commons is a photographic archive from different institutions around the world and it’s been fascinating looking at the collections, seeing how things like architecture, fashion and hairstyles have evolved over time.

The Powerhouse Museum and the NSW State Library are both part of The Commons and some of the images of Sydney are incredible; they date back to the beginning of the 20th century, some to even earlier when the colony was still forming. Most of the buildings don’t exist anymore and it’s an incredible insight into what life was really like back then.

The photo above is one of my favourites. It dates back to around 1920 and is of Marie-Celeste de Villentroy, the daughter of a photographer in Sydney at the time. It’s a beautiful portrait, hand-coloured. It’s also one of the few times I’ve seen the Red Ensign flag used so noticeably.

I spent Australia Day looking through The Commons last week and as I haven’t posted in a while, I thought it’d be fun to post some of my favourites photos. To share a little history. Most are of common landmarks in Sydney and should be familiar to people overseas.

There are quite a few photos, so I’ve posted more after the break. Enjoy.

This photo is of Market Street in the CBD, around 1875. The buildings were made of weatherboard and sanitation was a notorious problem in the area. You can see how the plague spread so rapidly a few years later. Rent was 21 shillings.

A view of Sydney from the old General Post Office in Martin Place (1900), in the central CBD. Many of these buildings were knocked down for development during the 1900s. The GPO was privatised in 1996 and now houses shops and cafes.

Martin Place, circa 1900. Martin Place was originally Moore Street and has changed a lot in 100 years but much of it is still recognisable. It was closed to traffic in 1971 and is now a pedestrian mall.

Queen Victoria Markets (1900), now the Queen Victoria Building. The QVB is one of my favourite buildings in Sydney; it’s mostly untouched and the inside has been carefully restored with many of its original features.

A gathering in Hyde Park while a band performs (1900). You can just see the Australian Museum and the Captain Cook statue in the background, which are still there today. The clothing seems formal even for the time; perhaps it was a special event?

Coogee Beach (1900). Most of the landscape has changed now, with shops and traffic coming right up to the esplanade. But the beach is still much the same. The building on the far right is the Coogee Palace, now the Beach Palace Hotel; it was restored in the 1980s.

July 1900, as the Bubonic Plague spread through Sydney. It killed 550 people in Australia, most in Sydney where it originated. Scenes like this were common throughout the city as people tried to keep their homes clean and disinfected.

A Sydney kitchen in George Street (1900). This was taken during the outbreak of plague and it looks like a fairly typical kitcken, particularly for the poorer houses in the city. Where the house was is now Sydney Central Station.

The Royal Arcade (1892). The Royal Arcade was one of five beautiful Victorian arcades in Sydney and was over 90 metres long. Of the five arcades only the Strand survives; the Royal Arcade was pulled down for the Hilton Hotel in the 1970s.

Four women going about their day in George Street in 1890. The GPO is behind them and the old David Jones building to the right. They were photographed without their knowledge; the fashion seems more casual than in many posed portraits from the time.

A telephone exchange at Anthony Hordern & Sons (1933). The store, part of the enormous Palace Emporium, was the largest department store in Sydney before it closed in 1970. The building was subsequently demolished for the World Square Shopping Centre.

January 1st, 1901. Federation. Citizens watch the procession down Macquarie Street as Australia became the Commonwealth of Australia and took its first steps as a separate nation – becoming the first country of the 20th century.

The first Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia and the first Federal Ministry, meeting at Government House in 1901. Sir Edmund Barton, Australia’s first Prime Minister, is seated on the left.

January 26, 1938. The Aboriginal Day of Mourning. Coinciding with the 150th anniversary of the colonisation of Australia, it was the first time Aborigines protested their treatment and demanded full Australian citizenship. They didn’t receive it until 1967.

Schoolchildren at Belmore North Public School receive a free bowl of soup and a slice of bread during the Depression (1934). Over 300 bowls of soup would be served to children of the unemployed each day and warm clothing was distributed in winter.

Construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, May 1930. The photographer, Ted Hood, leant upside down over the crane with another worker holding onto his legs to take the shot. They were 130 metres above the ground.

March 19, 1932. The opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, as the first cars pay the tolls. The original opening of the Bridge was famously upstaged by Francis de Groot, who cut the ribbon before the NSW Premier. Tollbooths weren’t added until sometime later.

Randwick Racecourse (1863). The racecourse was originally known as Sandy Course and dates back to 1833. It seated a crowd of 6000; now it has a capacity of 90,000. It’s often used when the Pope or other dignitaries visit Sydney as well. We live about five minutes away.

A troopship with the 6th Division departs Sydney for the Middle East and World War II (January 1940). The 6th Division would go on to serve in North Africa, Greece and on the Kokoda Track in some of the toughest fighting of the war.

Firemen show their latest gasmasks to the public outside the Castlereagh Street headquarters in 1927. Apparently demonstrations like this were common and were often put on for the public on Wednesday afternoons.

All photos from the Powerhouse Museum, the NSW State Records Office and The NSW State Library collections.

13 thoughts on “Historic Sydney

  1. Great post and pics. Love historical photos. Re: your computer – sounds like your hard drive is heading for hard drive heaven. Me, I wouldn’t mess around but would buy a new system and then transfer everything because today it is cheaper and far less time consuming to buy a new one than to try to repair the old especially when it comes to something so critical as your hard drive. Just my thoughts. At the very least a low cost lap top would make a good backup machine while you try to fix the other. Thought I would mention too that there are viruses that will have that effect (shutting you down unexpectedly) but the grinding sound usually means your hard drive is the problem. JMO things keep changing in the Industry so I could be wrong. 🙂

  2. Hi kseverny – they’re incredible images, aren’t they? I love old black and white photographs; they give everything such character. It’s a Sydney I’ve never seen before.

    If you liked these photos, I’m sure you’ll love The Commons. These are just the tip of the iceberg! Thanks for stopping by.


    Hi Phil – thanks for your comment and your help! I’m glad you liked the photos. It was wonderful going through them all; I think I’m seriously addicted to The Commons now!

    Unfortunately I think you’re right about the hard drive. I’ve been thinking it’s either the hard drive or the fan dying and you’ve probably just confirmed it. I’ve backed up all of my files but the problem is it’s a laptop, so if it is the hard drive then I doubt it’s replaceable. I’m still hoping there might be another reason but if not, at least a new laptop isn’t too expensive.

    I just had a quick look at your photos on Flickr as well. Beautiful. I’m amazed you can get such good shots from an iPhone. I’ll have to have a good look at them later. Thanks for stopping by. 😉

  3. These are incredible pics, and your commentary is splendid! How COULD they have torn down those arcades? I’m please to read at least one survives. Almost all photos I’ve seen of Aus have been modern; your photo history is a real treat. Many similarities and some differences in our respective societies. Glad you are getting some good writing done; looking forward to reading. Sorry your computer is grinding away–Oh, dear. I certainly hope you get to feeling better. I know how tedious the symptoms can be.
    Cheers, and thanks for this!

  4. I love old black and white pictures! Thanks for sharing. The idea you have for a novel sounds like one I would like to read. I’ll pray for publication! Sorry for your computer woes, glad you have a new one though. Hope you are feeling better.

    I like the one photo with the ‘sugar’ container in it. After seeing that kitchen, I’ll never complain about my old kitchen again. (Still have the pantry style)

    Take care

  5. Hi Ee Leen – I’m glad you liked the photos! I love old black & white photos like this; you can learn so much from them. I’ve lived in Sydney most of my life but this almost seems like another city, so much has changed. Thanks for stopping by and for your lovely comment. 😉


    Muse – thanks! The commentary was a lot of fun to write, particularly as I was learning about a lot of the history at the same time. I’d love to see similar photos of London and New York at some stage as well.

    I’m amazed how many of these landmarks have been pulled down over the years. Some needed to be demolished after being in disrepair for years, but others were just pulled down to make room for more modern buildings. It’s terrible to think how much history we’ve lost. I would have loved to have seen the Royal Arcade just once.

    My writing’s going slowly but it’s getting there! I hope to finish a couple of short stories in the next few weeks before settling in to work more on this story, and then my novel. At least now that I have a new computer I don’t have to worry about losing all of my typing!

    Take care, Muse. Hope you have a great weekend. 😉

  6. BD – thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed the photos. I loved sorting through them… there are so many, I think I’ll post some more at some stage.

    The kitchen photo is one of my favourites as well. It really shows what life was like at that time… it must have been so difficult during the plague. We have a fan-forced oven which drives us nuts sometimes but compared to that kitchen, I’m not complaining either.

    My writing’s going okay… it’s hard to tell how it’ll turn out until it’s almost finished. Hopefully I’ll have a novel published one day. I’ll never stop trying!

    Have a great weekend. Hope you get some sleep! 🙂


    CV – thanks! They’re great photos, aren’t they? I think these kind of photos are incredible… they teach us so much and have so much value, yet we rarely see them. The past is such an important resource; I’m glad I could share them.

    I am feeling better now… looking forward to getting back into my writing! Hopefully I’ll have something finished to share in a few weeks.

    I hope you’re doing well. Did you enjoy the Olympics? It was great over here. Made me want to visit Canada even more than I already do!

    Take care, CV, and many blessings. 😉

  7. CJ,

    Glad to hear you are feeling better.. I enjoyed the OG very much and with so much pride…I am doing very well and thank you for asking.. My studies are so much fun and I just love it, it is so inspiring.. If you come to visit Canada one day let me know….

    Take care


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