Mortlake – a working class community

Mortlake, situated on the foreshores of the Parramatta River, has endured cyclical changes in its history, emerging from a fragmented township in the closing decades of the 19th century to a distinct population growth area.

In addressing this question, I examined Mortlake in the Local Government Area of Concord from approximately 1883 to 1900. My sources included historical and government material which let me to explore the development of this geographical region into a thriving township populated by a distinct working class community. This particular  working class community emerged as a result of  the impact of the Australian Gas Light Company which provided the major employment for that period. I will discuss how a fragmented village became a major industrial centre by the turn of the century with the associated infrastructure necessary to service the community.

Mortlake Gas Works
Mortlake Gas Works

Mortlake, situated on the foreshores of the Parramatta River, has endured cyclical  changes in its history, emerging from  a fragmented township in the closing decades of the 19th century to a distinct population growth area, experiencing prosperity and depression several times over throughout its growth, due to the nature of its industrial links.  Today, Mortlake is enjoying gentrification, reveling in a real estate boom because society values “water views” as the epitome of housing considerations and as such, is outside the price range of our late 20th Century working class aspirations.  However, my brief is to argue that the original geographical area of Mortlake developed into a typical late 19th Century working class community; that it’s geographical location was integral in attracting capital to create employment, thereby accumulating population requiring the infrastructure necessary for community habitation

Within this historical time frame, there is an employment “boom and bust”, the impact of which affects the young community.  Use of Australia Post Archives provided me with an opportunity to observe local history “from the ground” regarding prevailing social conditions, attitudes and personalities.  Examination of Sands’ Sydney and Suburban Directory 1880-1896 allowed me to make my own assessment of the population in Mortlake at that point in time. I concluded that the establishment of the Australian Gas Light Company was pivotal to the formation of an industrial working class community with a commonality of interest, specifically employment.  This led to the infrastructure required to support and service Mortlake community in the physical sense.

Geography as location
The Municipality of Concord was initially proclaimed on 11th August, 1883, an area of 9 square kilometres, supporting a population of over 500 residents, with its northern boundary being the Parramatta River while  the southern boundary  reached a ‘line along the centre of [Parramatta) road’ to abut the north boundary of the Municipality of Burwood.  Tucked into the northern boundary were the beginnings of Mortlake, first known as Breakfast Point in 1799, then variously as Batchelors Point or Green Point.  Supposedly “Mortlake” as a place name had its origins in English geography, named by settlers to remind them of moorings along the Thames River.  Thus the village of Mortlake already had obvious transport advantages, firstly being serviced by the Parramatta River Steamship company from the 1860’s and from 1874, horse-drawn buses that crossed the Parramatta Road at an area which was the coach halfway point between Sydney and Parramatta and connected with Burwood Railway station.

Capital as Employment creating identity
It was this very accessibility by land and water which in 1883 induced the Australian Gas Light Company (AGL) to purchase 42 acres of land for new works on the southern side of the Parramatta River.  Development quickly extended to 80 acres then 120.  This was a departure from previous company policy of building small works (such as those at Balmain and Five Dock) close to the area to be supplied.  Mortlake was to be the showplace, with room for expansion and buildings of expansive scale, “churchlike in appearance, temples to industry”. The Retort House, more than two storeys high, 270 feet long and 70 wide, was flanked by two grand edifices providing covered storage for 8,000 tons of coal, delivered by part steam, part sail from Newcastle.  Railway tracks. carried by a viaduct from the jetty at Breakfast Point, bore locomotives which delivered the coal to huge bins to supply constant fuel for the charging of the retort.  The accompanying holders, over thirty metres high, also on a scale never seen before, radically changed the appearance of the Municipality of Concord.   By the time the building of the new works began, its benefits were enjoyed by people of moderate means as well as by the wealthy, with gas sent from Mortlake being made available to the working glass by use of the penny-in-the-slot meter.

Identity creating Community of consciousness
From the very beginning, Mortlake’s workmen formed a close community, working together to improve their lots and supporting each other in difficulty.  The works were being built while the 8 hour day was coming into general acceptance in Sydney, thus forcing  the AGL to bow to the inevitability of change.  Where once stokers, engine drivers and boilermakers worked twelve hour shifts day or night, they ultimately gained the eight hour day, unlike the blacksmiths who had won it in 1883.  The 1890’s marked  the beginning of open conflict between capital and labour.  The Stokers’ Union (comprising Stokers, Yardmen, Engine Drivers and Boilermakers) successfully negotiated concessions such as wage rises, payment of time-and-a-quarter for Sundays and public holidays. The retorts at AGL were a continuous operation but despite the initial harsh conditions at Mortlake, men wanted to work there because the continuity of operation offered greater job security than other industries of the day and because the Company provided some compensation to families as a result of death or injury.

The building boom of the 1880’s necessitated building a second retort house at Mortlake but by its completion  in 1893, Sydney was in the grip of a severe depression affecting most of  Australia.  The resultant unemployment of the level experienced between 1891 and 1895 was unprecedented.  By 1890, due to the extreme preceding growth of Mortlake,  AGL staved off the mainlaying of the Company coming to a halt for quite some time especially since the Balmain and Five Dock works were closed.  Apparently, AGL was never in danger of collapse but its public and private consumers suffered financial distress and reduced their use of gas.  Economy measures instituted by AGL included the reduction in workingmen’s wages of one penny in the shilling from November 1893.  Despite the Gas Stokers’ Protective Association meeting with the Directors, a report from that meeting shows the “men accepted their position in the structure of society”.  Whilst the second retort house stood idle till the end of the decade, wages of those “lucky enough to keep working” were reduced, but Mortlakers, unlike their Victorian counterparts, did not resort to striking.  Skilled workers were always more fortunate than unskilled, who, in bad times, were laid off;  the usual fate of such men.

Physical community and required infrastructure
With the advent of AGL, Mortlake was quickly transformed from a quiet rural district, with an  influx of people soon requiring the associated infrastructure of transport, schools, shops and churches. An advertisement for the sale of  land on 13th September 1884 displays a map of Mortlake – “Parramatta River…near the Gas Works, ten pound deposit”.  In 1888 the “Echo” reported that already a very large number of men were employed at these works, and a small township had sprung up in the vicinity.  Records of 1896 indicate that Mortlake gasworks employed an assistant engineer and three clerks, sixty-three lamplighters, and 212 stokers, mechanics and yardmen, a total of 279 men.  Local foundries also expanded to make castings which were then completed by AGL workmen. The subsequent growth of the population led to a greater sense of community identification.  The “Echo” report of 1890 refers to the township that had grown up around the gasworks, mentioning, amongst other evidences of “progress and civilization”, Mr. Sturt’s hotel, the Concord Working Men’s Club, churches, working men’s cottages and noting that the village of Mortlake was the largest in the municipality.  Karskens describes Mortlake as a thriving compact population centre in contrast to the intermittent and dispersed development of most of the municipality; that the Pier and Mortlake Estates had been subdivided and well established by 1890.  She describes the street planning of most of Mortlake area as “reiterating a pattern of the rest of the municipality, that is a patchwork of rectilinear grids within the lines of earlier roads”. However, she notes  the exception in the early subdivision of Mortlake Estate and Mortlake Village where Northcote, Edwin and Bertram Streets…intersect Hill Street and Tennyson Road at odd angles…resulting in narrow allotment.  Karsken considers this to be modelled on the subdivision pattern of inner city suburbs, somewhat incongruous in the rural, isolated landscape of this area.  I would argue that it is this very incongruity that remains a tangible evidence today of the emergence of Mortlake as a typical 19th Century working class community.

In looking at Mortlake as an evolving physical community, I have addressed the issue of major employment and the sense of community identification in this specific location.  It is, therefore, interesting to follow the development of the accompanying public services and community services.  As with all the municipality, Mortlake was not included in the metropolitan sewerage system and maintained the dry-earth system.  Water was obtained from wells and tanks and by the late 1880’s few streets had been “formed and metalled” but the main road from Mortlake to Parramatta Road had been covered with tar and ashes; materials by courtesy of AGL.   Street lamps were not available in the municipality  although by 1888, gas mains had been laid in the main streets and plans made for lighting of the district, at which time there were 423 ratepayers in the municipality, occupying 354 houses paying a general municipal rate of one shilling in the pound.

Karskens reports that the series of cottages still standing near the junction of Gale Street and Tennyson Road are excellent records of this early settlements. My own experiences of the area attest to the remaining working men’s cottages which, despite the current gentrification, are still very much in evidence; minute weatherboard, single fronted cottages, chimneys back and front, often an outside shed covered in creepers (upgraded from the outside “dunny” of yesteryear to latter day storage shed) backing onto meandering lanes  Shops still standing on the corner of Tennyson Road and Macdonald Street, are considered significant heritage buildings; the corner shop appears to have served as the area’s first Post office.

As with all communities, education and religion were integral.  Because the gasworkers’  children were forced to walk a distance of 2 miles to the Concord School. A residents’ petition resulted in Mortlake Public School being built at a total cost of £1265 for land and a simple wooden structure.  It opened on 27th July, 1887, having an end-of-year enrolment of 135 pupils.  Fees were six pence a week, although it is alleged that the Education Department did not press payment.   Drinking water was a major problem, stored in an unlined underground tank made of brick, and often regarded as unfit to drink.  Meanwhile, “aware of the sad conditions of Catholics living at Mortlake” the nuns established a Sunday School in a local hall and, because of its success, started a school for young ones too small to walk to Concord, with first day attendance reaching 70 pupils.

Karsken notes the establishment of church buildings also strongly reflects the development of the region and the changing patterns of population.  St. Mary’s Mission (Anglican) Church, “a simple structure” was begun in Mortlake 1886 following the opening of the gasworks, but due to a shortfall in funds, was nothing more than a mission hall, licensed for worship under the oversight of the Minister of St. Luke’s Anglican Church, Concord.  In contrast, St. Patrick’s Catholic Church 1894, which was architecturally designed, and again the direct result of opening of the gasworks, whose employees numbered many Irish Catholics, was in the fortunate position of being free from debt immediately upon its opening. This accords with the historical perception that one third of the working class in the 19th Century was Irish. However, to be fair, I would argue that perhaps much of the money had been contributed prior to the depression of the 1890’s.  Whilst there are conflicting views as to the location of the earlier weatherboard premises, the brick Congregational Church and hall, Tennyson Road, Mortlake, was opened in July 1886 after land was secured following the AGL construction. Church minutes of 3rd March 1887, record over eighty persons at evening service. In September, 1887, a tender of £176 was accepted to erect a weatherboard club room to act as a “Working Men’s Reading Room” and church records also reveal the existence of three committees, viz. Workmen’s Institute, Band of Hope and Temperance Societ, and Local Church.

As Concord changed, so too did the leisure pursuits of its residents. Francois Lepailleur had earlier written that drinking alcohol was a popular pastime amongst the area’s pioneers. Montgomery’s Palace Hotel, Tennyson Road, Mortlake was built in 1886 “to cater for thirsty gasworkers.” The Towers and verandahs provided an excellent view of the sculling races on the Parramatta River, which were a major tourist attraction. Swimming was popular from 1886 when Ashton’s baths were established, having been excavated from rock, measuring thirty metres by 12 metres, and the first to be built in the metropolitan area. By 1888 Mortlake boasted an Institute in Tennyson Road.

In abetting my investigation into the local history of this area, Commonwealth Post Archival records open a window onto the young community viz.

P.O. memo  Postal Inspector visiting Mortlake where “there are 50 houses and others being erected.  Gas Company employs 600 and will have more (October 1886);

Petition to Postmaster-General from Mayor and Councillors plus some 50 residents “No Post Office in this important municipality – over 1000 who are considerably inconvenienced.” (November 1886).

Details of applicant for position of Postmaster – Joshua Wilson  “lately lost his leg”, well known to Mr. Sturt (licencee of Palace Hotel) who is willing to put up the house to enable Wilson to make a small pittance with a salary of £10 per annum.

Subsequent correspondence details the drowning of Postmaster Wilson “a man of sober habits”.  Other appointments include R. Stirrat, whose wife is appointed in his stead when he resigns to “extensively travel through gold and silver mines”. Indications of hardships of the 1890’s are identified when a hoped-for post-and-money-order-cum-savings bank at Mortlake “necessitated by £1,000 paid in wages by the gas company” is refused.  On 27th  December 1894, Postmistress Stirrat’s salary is reduced from £49 to  £30 “in consequence of the very small revenue derived from your office”.  Mrs. Stirrat accepts but “hardly thinks it fair”.

Thus from the foregoing postal records, I have gleaned first-hand estimates on the number of houses in Mortlake (as opposed to municipality of Concord); number of employees at AGL in October, 1886, a human interest story on the late Postmaster, the activities of the new Postmaster and his domestic situation, and how the “boom and bust” sequence has impacted on both the area and the inhabitants.

My study of Sands Sydney and Suburban Directory 1870-1896 gives an indication of the relevance of the specified area of Mortlake and the growth within the area, thus supporting my conviction of both a physical community and a community of consciousness.  Whilst 1884 records refer only to Concord, by 1886 Mortlake rates a mention.  In 1887 Mortlake is only mentioned as “Majors Bay to Mortlake under Burwood Road”, i.e. Burwood Road – Majors Bay to Mortlake.  Mortlake Gas Works and Office is mentioned and listings indicate 1 store, 3 boarding houses, 1 dining room, 1 hotel and 1 butcher.  However, by 1888, 5 boarding houses, 1 tobacconist, 3 dining rooms, 1 hotel, 2 butchers and 1 baker are listed.  In this same listing, specified streets, i.e. Bennett, Bayard, Edwin, Emily, Hilly, Hubert, Lake, Macdonald are bracketed as Mortlake, whilst the 1890 Sands entry is “Mortlake – see Concord”, thus identifying it as a physical community within the municipality.

In an endeavour to ascertain an idea of the increasing population figures from 1884 to 1900, I consulted a list compiled from  Sands Directory which proved to be most inconclusive. Whilst it showed “households” in 1884 as 12 and at 1900 as 150, which did not assist my population calculation to any great degree, what it did show was the mobility within the area as can be gauged by the following two entries.

Moiler, A. (Listed as Moiler, Abraham 1891 to 1893; described as Blacksmith 1890; Residence in Bayard Street 1894, 1895 named Apple Grove) Major Road (Mortlake) East side 1890; Hilly Street (Mortlake) 1891 to 1893, Bayard Street 1894, 1895.)

Moore, Thomas (described as Gardener 1886, 1887) Breakfast Point Road, North side 1885; Mortlake Road, East side 1886; Mortlake Road 1887, Burwood Road, 1889, 1890, Major Road (Mortlake) East side 1891 to 1900, Burwood Road, West side 1901.

My last attempt to calculate population growth was through the Census of NSW 1891, which showed –

Concord – Population 2107, total habitation 498, number of inhabited dwellings 431 and proportion of persons to each inhabited dwelling as 4.9.

From this, I could only surmise that as Concord showed 341 ratepayers in 1886, that Mortlake was the greatest growth area with the gasworks employing some 600 people, of whom I am assuming the majority were men, many of whom would have been a breadwinner with say 3 dependents, Mortlake could well have had a population in the vicinity of three quarters of the population of Concord, say 1500-1600.  This does not seem unreasonable in light  of Kelly’s argument that the Mortlake peninsula was transformed into a large thriving workingmen’s village following the opening of the gasworks.  Cashman emphasises it is important to try and locate communities within a suburb in order to make local identification; and members of the community are the church congregations, the “faces in the crowd”.  O’Brien argues the influence of economic implications on a town’s social history. These views substantiate my conviction that working class Mortlake was a physical community as well as a community of consciousness, typical of similar 19th Century working class communities.

From the local history level, I would argue that the Mortlake community was not unhappy with its relationship to the gasworks;  the physical presence and size of  which offered a long-term security. both for the skilled and the unskilled worker.  They fit the picture of the working class as a closely-knit community of that time, with the intimacy of work and life breeding a sense of place that normally overshadowed the workers’ sense of exploitation.  Mortlake fits the criteria of a locality wherein industry existed, with overlapping bonds based on kinship, religion and neighbourhood, reinforcing identification among people in similar material circumstances.

It is pertinent to note that the physical ruins on the site  of the now disused AGL still stand as a testament to the existence of a once typical, thriving working class community.  From conversations with so many local residents, it is obvious the ethos of “father to son” prevailed in the continuity of employment of four generations of workers linked physically and consciously by what McCalman suggests were the bonds and networks which provided working class families with the greatest support in times of stress, illness and unemployment.

What has proved to be the greatest tool in reinforcing my argument that the community of Mortlake was one example of a 19th Century working class community which can be interpreted  both as a physical community and a community of consciousness, has been my own initiative.  From a local history point of view, it was devastating to find that valuable Council records had been lost and access to much AGL material was no longer possible.  As a result, I was forced to “ferret”, which produced historical, economic and social background mentioned only briefly here in my reference to Commonwealth Post Office Archives.   The longer term benefit is that I can make my own contribution to enriching the Concord Historical Society, which offered me as much co-operation as they were able.  The June 1996 newsletter of that organisation shared the following snippet:-

“I knew Mr. Stirrat, the Postman…I recall at Christmas time my mum would be waiting for the Postman with a piece of Christmas cake and a glass of wine…Mr. Stirrat was very well liked and a smiling and cheerful gentleman.     Mrs Anne Leggett)

This is portion of a paper submitted by Lola Sharp as part of her Masters Degree several years ago.

References:
F Bolt Municipality of Concord 1884-1901
R. Broomham Mortlake 1886-1986
K. Buckley & T Wheelwright No Paradise for Workers
R. Cashman “A Suburb” in Local History Co-ordination Project Locating Australia’s Past:  A practical guide to  writing local history in New South Wales
C. Coupe Concord  A Centenary History
R. Gollan Radical and Working Class Politics
G. Healy The Book of Sydney Suburbs
G. Karskens Concord Heritage Study
M. Kelly Sydney: City of Suburbs
J. McCalman “ Class and Respectability in a Working Class Suburb”.. quoted in McCarthy “Defining the Field” in History and Communities.….
A. O’Brien “Untangling the Web; Interpreting Written Evidence” in Local History Co-ordination Project Locating Australia’s Past: A practical guide to writing local history in New South Wales
G. Shaw Concord Jubilee 1882-1933

6 thoughts on Mortlake - a working class community

  • My family were mortlake gas workers and I cannot find out what happen to my grandmother ruby teresa goodlet who married william frederick rawlin who was a crane driver . His father was also william rawlin union rep from mortlake gas works and his wife nellie rawlin. could you help me please.
    Thankyou i also have some photos you might be interested in.

  • My father was a worker at Mortlake Gasworks. His name was Gordon Phillbrook. I have forgotten the names of his fellow workers. I do remember the Maloneys of Mortlake Street some of whom also worked at the gasworks. I left home in 1960 to be married. My parents lived in Albion Street for at least 50 years until they died. Aunties, uncles and grandparents, the Weymarks, all lived a few streets away. I always admired the great Mortlake wall. Is it still there? And our baker who delivered our bread and who proudly smiled a mouth full of gold teeth.

  • I have been doing my family tree and have some info on the Rawlins of Mortlake and hopefully you can help me also.

    Regards
    Ian MacCarthy

  • I lived in Mortlake Street, I married in 1965 and left the area. My family is the Moloney Family from Mortlake St, all the men in our family worked at the Gas works, I knew Alf Weymark who lived in Lancelot St. some of our family still live there, the homes they lived in are still there and very well kept. My grandfather built the house they live in

  • My great grandfather was Samuel Rawlings, I have seen on him obituary that he was a foreman for the Gas Company and that they were requested to form processional at his funeral. I was interested to find out a little more if possible about him and his time working for the Gas Company.

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