From Convicts to Opera

The Manchester stand-up comedian Mike Harding (of “Rochdale Cowboy” fame) once quipped to an Australian audience that it cost him £600 to get to Sydney; his forefathers got there for stealing 2 loaves of bread and a sheep.

The origins of Sydney are well known and are rooted in the transportation of convicts from the UK to Australia for the first penal colony to be established in 1788. It was  Viscount Sydney (after which the city is named) who sent the first fleet in 1787 from England.  Of course, the aboriginal people had been here for an estimated 30,000 years with the Eora people most prevalent.  As well as the convicts, the first fleet also brought, livestock, Marines to guard the convicts (though where they would escape to at that time is anyone’s guess) and European diseases like Smallpox which eventually destroyed most of the Eora people.  It was a fairly lawless place and stumbled on through near starvation for many years but by around 1810 it was established as a bustling port with new houses, warehouses and streets.  All through the 19th century Sydney underwent rapid expansion and more of this vast continent was explored. Transportation as a sentence was stopped in around 1820 and the first free settlers arrived shortly after.  Expansion and immigration continued and the 20th century saw a massive influx of new migrants from Europe especially after WW2 and more recently from Asia and the Middle East.  It is this multi-cultural mix that is Sydney today.  The original settlers established themselves on the south side of the bay but now,  although the main business areas lie to the south, the city’s residential and suburbia has spread well to north of the bay.

Sculpture in front of the Town Hall commemorating the arrival of the first fleet led by Viscount Sydney

We have found that the best way to see a city and find out about its past and the characters that shaped it is to join a guided walk, and Sydney has a number of free walks on offer.  We joined one to get our bearings and find out about our host city.  We met our guide outside the Town Hall for a 3 hour tour of the city from where we are, ending in front of the Rocks area by Circular Quay,  where the first free settlers lived.   Below I have written of some of the highlights of the tour, some of the sights and the anecdotes.

Before we moved off we learned that the Town Hall is now a concert venue, the council having moved out years ago.  Such star names as Lady Ga Ga have played there, though I checked that she was not on our tour.  Next to the Town Hall is St Andrews Cathedral which faces backwards.  The back door faces out on to George St., which is the main street through this part of town.  The story goes that when the church was built in the 1860’s the front door opened out on to what was then the main street.  As time went on and the city developed, George St became the main thoroughfare and street access.  The road in front of the church fell into disuse and was built over.  Hence the church now faces backwards!

The Queen Victoria building is a massive structure bordered by 4 streets and is around 190m long and 30m wide. Originally designed as a market place it was built over 4 floors and today is a thriving retail centre with designer shops, cafes and restaurants aplenty.  Outside one entrance is a statue of Queen Victoria, which was donated by the Irish government.  The statue stood outside the legislative assembly of the Republic of Ireland until 1947 when it was put into storage then later given to the people of Sydney in 1987.

Top: Queen Victoria sits proudly outside her “market hall”.  Bottom:  What that “market hall” looks like today

Over time, Sydney seems to have tried to rival and sometimes better London with its buildings and structures sometimes successfully but others less so.  Sydney has a Hyde Park which rivals the one in London.  However one area where Sydney failed is its underground system.  It does have one but is not as comprehensive as its rival in London.  Sydney’s substructure is solid rock so it makes tunnelling very hard work and extremely difficult. The passenger network is a hybrid metro-suburban railway with a central underground core but mostly overground.  The tunnelling was extensive and expensive but very tough and soon the ides of having a comprehensive underground system was abandoned in favour of a limited tube system linked to an overground railway.   Many of the tunnels dug under the central  district were just abandoned and left.  Recently an enterprising consortium bought the tunnels and after extensive work they have opened up a unique subterranean shopping area in what should have been a series of tube stations.  They are very spacious and well lit and the whole development has been very cleverly designed to link in with existing retail areas and the newer rail systems.

One of the most notable figures in Sydney’s history was its Governor from 1810 -1821, General Lachlan Macquarie.  He worked hard to develop and expand the city and everywhere you look here is evidence of his work.  Macquarie Street runs from Hyde Park (his idea, borrowed from London) down to Circular Quay.  He built a hospital which collapsed almost as soon as it was completed due to its poor construction.  It was re-built in 1902. He certainly left his mark on Sydney.  The hospital is no longer in use for its primary purpose.  One building  was turned into the Sydney Mint (its now a bistro and small museum) but it was where the first plastic notes were developed.  Another building is now the museum of the Marine Barracks and the third is the New South Wales Parliament building. Even Mrs. Macquarie gets in on the act with Mrs Macquarie’s Chair, just round the corner from Macquarie Point, a major landmark to the east of the Opera House.

Anzac Memorial and walkway, Hyde Park Sydney.  The Mint.

We saw narrow streets full of history.  One of these featured a sculpture representing all those indigenous birds which are now endangered or extinct. These sculptures featured bird cages strung across this narrow street, each one representing a bird species lost since the first fleet landed in 1788. If you listen carefully each cage plays a representation of the song of the bird it is there to commemorate.

Sculpture representing the loss of indigenous bird species.

Finally we ended close to the iconic Harbour Bridge and opposite the Sydney Opera House. The bridge was started in 1923 and took 10 years to build.  In contructing it,  over 500 homes were demolished, their owners getting no compensation at all!  Sydneysiders are very attached to their giant coat hanger.  On the other hand the Opera House was a monumental cock-up.  Designed by a Danish architect in 1963, work started a year later.  Costs soon began to escalate and after several years the city council intervened and sacked the architect, replacing him with a team of city council architects who went on to complete the building.  Total costs were over 100 times the original estimates and after all that the acoustics were wrong and sound quality was not as good as it should be for a world class opera venue.  It opened in 1974, ten years after work first started and the Danish architect was never paid his full dues, neither was he invited to the opening ceremony.

Views of the two of the most recognisable structures in the world.

Tour over we headed to a cafe.  We had planned to head for the New South Wales Art Gallery but on the way got diverted by the Library of NSW.  A wonderful building with over six million books, documents and records.  There was also a photo exhibition based on a famous photograph by a 1930s photographer called Max Dupain.  The original black and white photograph, entitled Sunbaker, depicting the head and shoulders of a man lying on a beach, taken from a low angle. Considered a quintessentially Australian photograph, modern day photographers were asked to re-interpret the original in their own style.  Some stunning pictures were exhibited but the highlight, for Lyn was a 10 minute video of three men and three women dancing on a beach to traditional Iranian music.  A captivating study.

Some Scenes from Sunbaker film.  See Lyn’s thoughts below.

I love libraries and always like to visit them. Nowadays they are vibrant places where activities take place and where exhibitions are held. Something that I was really taken with was an exhibition entitled “Under the sun: Reimagining Max Dupain’s Sunbaker”- presented by the Australian Centre for Photography. Most striking was a video interpretation by Nasim Nasr. It was mesmerising; the human body in movement is a beautiful thing. The video was 10 minutes, 38 seconds. I watched it twice and could have stayed watching it again and again. Check it out on Youtube.

The contrast between Sydney and Brisbane is stark.  Brisbane is a newer city, younger and the tall buildings are more original in design.  Sydney has some of that too  around   Circular Quay and Darling Harbour, where there is a huge amount of re-development going on,  but the main area of the city is full of 70’s style concrete monoliths with no style or taste, slotted in around the older, more interesting and historic buildings.  It is fair to say that Australians are non too sentimental when it comes to preserving old buildings.  Many times our tour guide told us that so and so building stood there but it was demolished to make way for this concrete and glass obelisk to commerce.  I guess that sums up the contrast between the two.  Whereas Brisbane seems cultured and sophisticated, Sydney is more brash, louder and in your face. The people are just as friendly and helpful, maybe that is an Aussie trait but I did notice that there are far more foreign workers here than in Cairns or Brisbane.  It is the most populated city in Australia and probably the most expensive in which to live.

In some ways they do have a very forward thinking council.  The public transport system, busses, local trains and ferries all share a charge card system of payment called the Opal Card, very similar to the Oyster card in London. However, on weekdays fares are capped at A$10, so if in a day you spend over that amount the rest of your journeys on public transport for that day are free.  On Sundays that cap is reduced to A$2.50, so for locals and tourists alike there is an incentive to use public transport and that shows in that the city streets, although crowded with traffic are rarely gridlocked.  Oh, one other thing, the public transport system is publicly owned and very popular.  What a brilliant way to encourage people to use public transport by capping the maximum fares at such a low rate.

The next blog will cover more of Sydney and a bit on the North Bank area which is altogether different.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. RiverstoneImages says:

    Both Jim and I are thoroughly enjoying your posts, especially the history. While we’ve been pretty good about learning the history here, we’re also learning from you as well!


  2. davyh says:

    Hi Both,

    Glad you are enjoying the posts. Just hope the tour guides and The Lonely Planet books are right!

    Best wishes


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