William Street

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This week, The Past Present turns attention to the major streets in Sydney. We take for granted roads like the major thoroughfare William Street, yet in the early history of Sydney, streets were unpaved, or unevenly paved, dirty places. Others still were private roads which essentially were for use only by residents of their destinations. The image above, showing William Street, is just a glimpse into the history behind some of our grander streets.

William Street is one of Sydney’s major thoroughfares, linking Kings Cross to Hyde Park, where the street becomes Park Street. What’s more it acts as a border between Woolloomooloo and Darlinghurst. The earliest history of William Street dates to the 1820s, when Surveyor General James Meehan made public his grand plan to promote orderly development in the Surry Hills area, along a grid system. His proposed route for what became William Street was in conflict with the route proposed by Surveyor Thomas Mitchell, who proposed a grand thoroughfare which would extend on the existing Park Street. He also proposed that the street should detour through private land to avoid a significant sand hill, but in his absence (while surveying away from Sydney) the landowner, Colonial Secretary Alexander Macleay, ordered the street go ahead straight over the sandhill. Mitchell had suggested naming the street after the then king, William, and this part of his plan went ahead without any change.

The first part of William Street was proclaimed in early 1835 and not long after a rush to subdivide the area of Woolloomooloo began. By the 1850s, Woolloomooloo was essentially an expensive suburb, with houses, streets, shops, and even a horse bus running from the city along William Street. From 1879 steam trams began to operate, transforming William Street from an essentially private street to a major thoroughfare. With the coming of the steam trams, more subdivision occurred, but this time the new residents were not the wealthy. Cottages began to be interspersed with the earlier mansions, and by the 1890s, Woolloomooloo was a working class area of Sydney, complete with labourers, seamen, drifters and prostitutes. In 1908 the Royal Commission for the improvement of Sydney was formed, and found William Street to be wholly unsuitable for modern heavily laden vehicles. In 1916, the council resumed nearly 100 properties at the south side of William Street and the street was widened and upgraded between 1916 and 1923. Then, in 1969 the Woolloomooloo Redevelopment Plan was adopted, which again sought to recreate William Street. Most of this work did not go ahead though, due to resident protests.

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