Sydney in the early 1900s

By Joanna Egan 7 November 2013
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A newsreel shot from a tram as it travels up George Street, Sydney, in 1906 depicts a city humming with promise.

DURING THE EARLY 20th century, Sydney was humming with promise. The city was home to more than a million people and its streets were abuzz with commuters, horse-drawn wagons and trams.

The inner-city was a bustling trade hub that spilled into an expanding network of suburbs linked by a series of tramways, railways and ferry routes.

It was a time of rapid growth; the nation was transitioning from the days of steam power into the electric era and Sydney – Australia’s oldest city – was moving in step.

For the first time, Australian filmmakers were able to document city life as it evolved before their eyes.

Filmmaking was a new and exciting craft and Australian cinematographers were at its forefront – in 1906, the world’s first feature film, The Story of the Kelly Gang, was produced on Australian soil.

Armed with rolls of nitrate film, cameramen captured silent, moving images through their lenses. Often, these were cut together and presented as short documentaries – Australia’s oldest surviving footage features a six-minute clip of the 1896 Melbourne Cup.

Earliest footage of Australia

Newsreels that showed street-scenes, cityscapes and national events were regularly put on display for public viewing. The clip featured above is one of these newsreels. It was shot circa 1906 and is now part of a collection held at the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra.

This footage documents the heart of Sydney’s inner city: the length of pavement that stretches from Circular Quay to Town Hall. From atop one of Sydney’s electric trams, the cameraman captures the movement of busy George Street. Suited men and women in long skirts and broad-brimmed hats dart across the tram tracks while bicycle riders roll through town alongside horse-drawn wagons that carry goods and people from one side of the city to the other.

The silent footage shows the tram roll its way down George Street, past shopfronts and sandstone buildings that still exist today, such as the General Post Office in Martin Place and the Queen Victoria Building.

“The clarity of the image is exceptional considering the footage was captured in the first real decade of moving image cinematography,” says Gayle Lake, curator at the National Film and Sound Archive

“Seeing George Street alive with people, vehicles and the slow pass of trams highlights why film archives are so important,” she says. “Memories would be long forgotten and impossible to recreate without the collection, preservation and sharing of our history.”