How plague almost demolished historic Sydney

By Troy Douglas 16 August 2010
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Sydney’s oldest district is steeped in history – but the story behind its evolution is as rocky as the streets.

AS THE SITE OF the country’s first European settlement in 1788, ‘The Rocks’ had a distinct architectural style. But with health crises and society’s changing cultural preferences, its historical character increasingly became at risk of, literally, being demolished.

“The first two decades of the twentieth century was a time of soul searching in terms of urban problems,” says Caroline Butler-Bowdon, a curator of a new exhibition and author of an accompanying book on how artists captured ‘old Sydney’ as it was disappearing.

In the 19th century, Sydney tried hard to shed its convict past. The Rocks was at forefront of this, transitioning from gaol to trading port and rapidly becoming Sydney’s first commercial heart.

However, drunken sailors, released convicts and brothels still gave the precinct an unsavoury reputation. With increasing traffic, and wealthy landowners who leased houses to tenants, many buildings were neglected and slums emerged.

When an outbreak of the bubonic plague hit in the early 1900s it became a “catalyst for a program of urban renewal in The Rocks and Millers Point area”, Caroline says.

The Government at the time used fear to confirm long-held perceptions that The Rocks was dirty and overcrowded. Despite only three of the 103 plague-related deaths traced to the area, more than 3800 houses, buildings and wharves were subsequently inspected and hundreds demolished over the next decade.

Saving history

Construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and a boom in other infrastructure buoyed a rejuvenation of the area and its terrace-style buildings.

Before 1900 development was disorganised, with ex-convicts building houses wherever and however they could – creating narrow, windy streetscapes. “The Rocks developed with very little government interference,” says Wayne Johnson, co-curator of the exhibition, and an archaeologist at the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority. 

That changed when social reformers became more concerned with better living conditions and a desired style of housing. “The buildings were seen as outdated at a time when the government wanted to move away from terrace houses,” Wayne says.

Houses that survived the demolitions of the early 1900s weren’t so lucky when the Government needed to make way for the Harbour Bridge. By the 1960s, the Government shifted its preference towards high-rise towers. The National Trust nominated just one building worth preserving – Cadman’s Cottage, the oldest house, built in 1815-16.

The locals, worried about being forced out, responded by forming The Rocks Residents Group in the 1970s and by 1975 forced a compromise ensuring all buildings north of the Cahill Expressway were conserved and restored. Wayne says that now about ten percent of buildings remain, mostly around George street.

The trend to modernise, adopted by the State Government and City Council, matched smaller scale efforts in places like Melbourne, says Lisa Murray, city historian at the City of Sydney Council. But “without the local residents and trade unions coming together, it wouldn’t be what it is today” she says.

The exhibition, featuring surviving paintings and relics of the old Rocks, reflects artists’ attempts to mark that time, and shows that long before the residents’ protests in the 1970s. “there was a considerable concern for our heritage,” Caroline says.