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The Indigenous People

The site of Sydney is a place valued by the oldest civilisation in the world. For at least 50,000 years its aboriginal people fished the waters of its sheltered harbour, speared the plentiful supply of animals that inhabited its heavily wooded shores and filled the clear air with the sounds of their ordinary and ceremonial lives. Fragments of traditional aboriginal art may still be found on rock faces around the region and middens of shells testify to aspects of the domestic life of the men and women of the Cadigal band of the Eora tribe. In recent centuries, this lifestyle was rapidly obliterated with the arrival of Europeans. Perhaps there were older memories of fleeting visits of strangers we call Chinese, perhaps Portuguese. Then, in 1770, came the transient ships of the French explorer, La Perouse, and the English explorer James Cook, followed a few years later by the arrival of more English. This time they had come to stay.


The Arrival of Europeans

The settlement of Sydney is said to have begun on the afternoon of 26 January 1788, when the 11 ships of the "First Fleet" dropped anchor at Sydney Cove, one of the loveliest harbours in the world. But the human cargo that arrived in those ships was not lovely. The aim was not to build a great city, but to establish a prison settlement for British convicts. Soldiers and prisoners worked to carve out a rough and ready settlement, using European knowledge and ignoring the skills of the local people who had lived in this place for so long, and who were now being decimated by new European diseases. On several occasions the little settlement came close to starvation. Today, there are clear signs of these early years in the landscape of the City of Sydney. The original tracks hewn through the bush form some of the city's main thoroughfares. The eastern, "official" side of the original settlement still contains the buildings that denote power and control - government offices, the governor's residence, the houses of parliament. In the historical imagination, the old convict barracks near Hyde Park still reverberate with the swish of the lash and the clang of the chain gangs.

An Unruly Society

The western side of the town was altogether more unruly. Today, the crooked streets of The Rocks, which mark the western extremity of the early settlement, evoke a different kind of society. Here, convicts made a life as best they could, building higgledy-piggledy cottages with hand hewn rock. Sailors who'd spent months and months at sea caroused in the numerous small public houses drinking grog calculated to ruin their guts and help them forget the harsh realities of life in Sydney town. Some of the finest buildings of this early convict period were built during the time Lachlan Macquarie was governor (1810 - 1821). Governor Macquarie wanted to build a city and got himself recalled to London for his troubles, accused of spending too much money on the place. But against all the odds, Sydney was becoming a city, as free settlers began to arrive and convicts began to be free. A more complex place evolved as the economy grew. To the stench of the tar blackened ships' whaling and sealing were added the cargoes of the new and lucrative wool trade. To the gaol buildings were added increasing numbers of schools, churches, markets, stores, theatres and a library.

Government, Gold and Growth

By the time transportation of convicts ended in 1840, there were about 30,000 people living in Sydney. In 1842 the City of Sydney was established, with elections, offices and all the trappings of a free society. When gold was discovered in 1851, people began pouring into the city, not only from Europe and California, but from China as well. There was a flurry of building in the city, much of it shonky, as people improvised with scarce building materials and anyone could claim to be a builder. It was a more certain way of making money than digging for gold. Many did make fortunes, however, and the history of the city at this time is rich in stories of wild parties and extravagant celebrations that would have been unimaginable a few years earlier. Exuberance in architecture is a legacy of the prosperous decades that followed, with great piles of Victorian edifices being built to house a burgeoning society that not only wanted all the good things of the older European society, but had the money to build and consume to excess. The public symbol of this period of enthusiastic growth is the mellow golden local Sydney sandstone that was used to build places like the Town Hall, the General Post Office and the rapidly multiplying offices of the civil service in the official, eastern side of the city. Lesser buildings, "handsome villa residences, match-box cottages, toy-houses, and flimsy habitations studded the slopes in all directions around the city", (James Inglis, 1880s) indicating in varying degrees the participation of ordinary people in this city bonanza. As with all societies, some could afford none of these. By the end of the nineteenth century Sydney was one of the largest cities in the Western world, with a population of half a million people. It has not maintained that position in the twentieth century, but Sydneysiders have long known that it is quality, not quantity that counted.

The fact that the quality of this harbour city is largely due to the generosity of nature does not stop its inhabitants claiming all this as their due. Ever since the first governor recorded his responses to "the finest harbour in the world", artists and writers have never stopped trying to capture the essence of the city with paint brush, camera and pen. These records contribute to the rich history of the city. The Flagstaff at Fort Phillip is certainly one of the most airy of the scenes about Sydney - situated on an eminence so lofty that a person looking from it can see the mighty City, and a portion of the countryside around it, spread out like a rich panorama; where roofs of houses and church steeples are crowded together... How grand, how sublime ... (1847).Twentieth century additions to the view, in the form of the 1930s Sydney Harbour Bridge and the 1960s Opera House have become part of the cultural overlay of this rich natural inheritance. Nature and culture together created and continue to create a city described by the writer Jan Morris in 1992 as a place with:"... the grand-slam look, the whole hog, flag-and-fireworks look few cities on earth can offer so operatic an approach...something grand, famous and preferably glittering left on the shores of history by Empire's receding tide... not I think the best of the cities the British Empire created, not the most beautiful either, but the most hyperbolic, the youngest at heart, the shiniest ..."                   


Did you know? The first named piece of music performed in Sydney, the "Rogues March" was played at the drumming out of a soldier who was caught in the female convict's tents? The first burial ground in Sydney was on the site of the Town Hall. On several occasions since, excavations in the area have turned up early settlers. The most recent find was in 1992. After the burial ground was closed in 1820, new grounds were consecrated where Central Railway now stands. Officially called the Devonshire Street Cemetery, it was known locally as the Sandhill's cemetery. Samuel Terry, one time convict who became a millionaire, built a brewery that was supplied with water from a creek which drained the Sandhill's cemetery. The beer gained a reputation for fine flavour. The first theatre in Sydney was built in 1794 by convicts. It was run by Robert Sidaway, who worked as a baker in The Rocks.


From the recent Olympic Games

Most Sydneysiders had little access to money, so they paid their entrance fee in flour, which went into the bread or in spirits, which went into the baker. Governor Hunter closed the theatre down in 1798 because he thought it had a corrupting influence on the town. Under the first City of Sydney Act, 1842, the Mayor had to set up boundary markers for all the wards of the city. Once a year the aldermen were supposed to walk or ride around all of these markers - "beat the bounds", - so that the boundary would become fixed in peoples' minds. This medieval practice evolved in the days when not many could read, and no-one had maps. Some of these boundary markers still exist. There's one in Sydney Square, outside the Town Hall on George Street.