The Rocks, Early Sydney


The Rocks is really a most extraordinary place! A small district of Sydney, without the distinction of its own postcode, it stands on the high ground west of Sydney Cove, nudging at the edges of the city, its highways and byways running above and below and around the giant turrets and ramparts of Hawkesbury sandstone, on which most of Sydney is built, and down to the waters of what used to be known as Semi-Circular Quay.

The birthplace of our nation, every inch of it historic ground. A 19th century backdrop to the extremes of English Establishments wealth and respectability on the one hand, violence and filth and degradation on the other. In the 20th century a constant source of bitter debate as to its future.

Its beginnings were in 1788, when Captain Arthur Phillip anchored his ships in Sydney Cove and unloaded his wretched cargo of convicts onto its shores. Sydney Cove was divided, then, by the Tank Stream—”a little rivulet fringed with heavy timber, among which wild celery, spinach and fresh parsley grew” – which also provided fresh water essential for settlement and which still flows under city streets today.

The Rocks has been divided, socially and geographically, from the beginning, when Captain Phillip established his convicts under canvas—in rough wattle and daub huts on one side of the stream whilst the marines who guarded them, in houses of brick and stone built by the convicts on the other.

The large house at bottom left is the home of Isaac Nichols, from which he conducted the first Post Office.

It was divided first between the bonded and the free. After transportation ceased in 1840—the “division” was between rich and poor. The “aristocracy” of Government officials, and merchants and traders in gracious two and three storey homes in the High Rocks, with panoramic views of the harbor and deer and peacocks roaming free.

At the other end of the scale, the cut-throats, gamblers, crimps, pimps and prostitutes, who lived in indescribable squalor in every nook and cranny of the rocks below, and who gave the port its reputation as the roughest and toughest in the world.

In the 20th century, it has been divided between the residents; maritime workers and their families, the artists and artisans who shared the area with them.

It is amazing that the Rocks has retained any of its links with the past as it has been threatened so many times, from as far back as 1810, when Governor Macquarie planned to replace its murky tenements with landscaped parks and gardens.

Threats became reality in 1900 when Sydney was swept by bubonic plague, 112 people died, and the city fathers were compelled at last to destroy the rat-ridden hovels and hotels, and place administration in the hands of the newly formed Sydney Harbour Trust—forerunner of the Maritime Services Board.

A series of grandiose development schemes followed and a fair amount of re-building had taken place by the 1920’s, when construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge cut East and West Rocks into two, whole streets disappeared, and people who had lived there all their lives were forced out of their homes. There were further threats in the 1960’s by plans involving the total demolition of East Rocks—then a reprieve.

In the 1970’s conflict and controversy continued; between residents, the Maritime Services Board, the National Trust, the Sydney Cove Re-development Authority, conservationists, business interests and unions.

Our legacy from the day King George III “Pattent for the Establishment of the Settlement” was proclaimed on the corner of George and Argyle Streets, The Rocks has become a growing tourist centre which attracts millions each year. But it remained a thriving sea port and tight knit self contained marine village community, where properties—until recently, were balloted from one generation to the next, and most of the residents are related to each other. According to America’s “Fortune” Heron Flyer – 3 April 2015 magazine it is the worlds most valuable piece of real estate, and surprisingly it remains a political “hot potato” as the NSW state government has discovered.

(This story was taken from the Terrace Times Cook Book—The Rocks Edition – published in 1976 by Helen Arbib and Pauline Clements)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *