This week, The Past Present turns its attention to one of the many beautiful and somewhat iconic buildings around Sydney. Sydney has spectacular architecture displayed in many of our old buildings. One of the most spectacular, with its beautiful facades and imposing columns, is the Art Gallery of New South Wales, pictured above on a postcard from the early 20th century. Intriguingly, note the building work going on, indicating that, at the time of the postcard, the Art Gallery was yet to be completed!
The Art Gallery of New South Wales has its inception in the 1870s,when an Academy of Art was established to promote fine arts in Sydney. With funds contributed by the Government of the time, the Academy purchased the first works to be held in the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Over the next decade the collection developed and grew, and a permanent home to house the collection quickly became a necessity and John Horbury Hunt was asked to submit plans for the gallery. This original building, which became known as ’the Art Barn’ was not much more than a series of thick walls, but provided a temporary home until funds for a more appropriate building could be obtained. In 1889 Hunt was asked to complete a further set of plans for the gallery, and in total he submitted three designs. However, none were viewed as appropriate, being too large, too grand, and too much a hybrid of architectural styles.
The trustees of the gallery really wanted a Classic Ionic design, a temple to art in the Greek style, and they looked to Walter Vernon to provide it. At the time, this was quite different to the type of architecture Vernon was known for, but his design certainly met with the demands of the trustees, though what we see today is a little more austere and less ornamented than Vernon envisaged. The building was completed in four stages and by 1901 the southern half of the building had been completed and in 1909 the front of the gallery was complete. However, nothing further of Vernons designs was built, despite plans to do so during the 1930s. Further extensions to the building were completed in time for the 1988 Bicentenary, and there have been many additions and alterations since.
This week, with the weather having been so poor, it seemed the perfect time to turn attention to one indoor attractions in Sydney. Sydney has a wonderful history of theatre and entertainments, and once Her Majesty’s Theatre, pictured in the postcard above, was a central part of this.
Over the course of European history, Sydney has actually been home to not one, but three theatres by the name of ‘Her Majesty’s’. The first of these was proposed in 1882, but construction on the actual building, which stood on the corner of Market and Pitt Streets, did not begin until 1884. At the time of opening, in 1887, it was the largest and best venue for shows in the entirety of the city, with a grand interior including a dome and chandelier. The theatre was also the first to actually conform to regulations put in place following the NSW Commission on Theatres. The main result of this was extensive fire safety and prevention measures, which included an asbestos drop curtain! Yet in 1902, just 15 years after opening, a fire broke out during a production of Ben Hur. The asbestos safety curtain did not operate properly, and the interior of the theatre was completely destroyed.
The theatre reopened in 1903 with an new Edwardian interior, though the Pitt Street side retained the original facade. The newly reopened theatre had the latest in technology and once again fire precautions were upgraded. This was not to be the final incarnation of Her Majesty’s Theatre though, and in 1933, ostensibly due to pressures from council rates and taxes, the theatre closed. There was a third theatre which was o be known as Her Majesty’s Theatre, which evolved from an existing theatre – The Empire. Yet this theatre did not open as ‘Her Majesty’s Theatre’ until 1960, well after the original theatre had closed.
Hospitals have long been a feature of Sydney’s history, with the first ‘hospital’, constructed of tents, operational in 1788. Yet when we think of Sydney’s hospital history, we tend to think of a few, main hospitals, Sydney Hospital being the one which most often jumps to mind. Sydney has many medical facilities though, some of which still exist in their original locations, and some of which have been lost to history. The Little Bay Hospital pictured above is one such facility.
In the 1880s, there became an increased demand for hospital care, and also an increasing need to specialise medicine. Little Bay Hospital (usually known as The Coast Hospital or Prince Henry) was one just one specialised hospital built in this decade. Little Bay, located in Southeast Sydney and well away from the established communities and suburbs was the perfect location for this new hospital which catered specifically for infectious diseases. The hospital first opened in 1881 as a tent hospital and was a direct response to the smallpox epidemic which was then sweeping Sydney. A horse ambulance was established to carry patients to the isolated hospital, and disbanded in early 1882, after the epidemic was over. The Coast Hospital was not disbanded though, being converted to a briefly to a convalescent hospital before being again transformed in 1888 into a ‘fever hospital’. From this time the Coast Hospital treated infectious ‘fever’ diseases such as diphtheria, tuberculosis and scarlet fever. In 1900 and again in 1921 patients with Bubonic Plague were treated at Little Bay and in 1919, when the famous influenza pandemic sweeping the world reached Sydney, patients suffering from the deadly disease were also sent to the isolated hospital. In 1934, in honour of the Duke of Gloucester, the name of the hospital was officially changed and from this point the hospital was known as Prince Henry. The hospital at Little Bay was finally closed in 2001, with services being transferred to the Randwick Campus.
Sydney Harbour is, as many say, the jewel of Sydney. It is a beautiful harbour, which today is easily crossed and navigated, but this was not always the case. Before the Harbour Bridge, and indeed before any bridge at all, ferries were needed to cross the beautiful expanse of water. Today, ferries continue to ply the harbour, with many ferry wharves having a surprisingly long history. Musgrave Street Wharf is just one of these.
Musgrave Street Wharf has a surprising history, which many may not expect. Today, the wharf serves South Mosman, but over time, some extremely important and famous Australians have used this seemingly typical wharf. In the late 19th century, an artists camp was established on the eastern short of Little Sirius Cove in Mosman. The camp, known as Curlew Camp, was used by several extremely important Australian artists, including Arthur Streeton and Tom Roberts. Julian Ashton also occasionally visited, though he was not a permanent resident. Not only were the artists associated with the camp famous, some of their most famous paintings were painted while they were resident at the camp. After the artists had moved on, the camp continued to be popular, though now more with those interested in sailing and sport. During this time, another famous Australian, Frederick Lane who was a gold medal winning Olympic swimmer, became proprietor of the camp. The question is, how did those using the camp access the city, where several of the residents worked or sold their works. This is where Musgrave Street Wharf comes in – the camp was but a short walk from the ferry wharf, and this is how the residents came and went.
Sydney is made up of many fascinating suburbs and areas, many of which are such a normal part of Sydneysiders lives, that they spare little thought for the history of these areas, let alone for the names they go by. Today most are simply residential suburbs, home to countless families. Mortlake is just one such area.
The earliest Europeans to live in what is now known as the Mortlake area were John Miller, John Robertson and Benjamin Butcher, each of whom was given a land grant in 1795, not long after Europeans colonised Australia. The land, which was first recorded as Bottle Point, was then transferred to John Ward and his heir Alexander MacDonald. In fact, Mortlake has had many names. By 1837 we know people had begun to refer to the area as Mortlake Point, but intriguingly, in the later part of the 19th century, the area was usually referred to as Bachelors or Green Point. The name Mortlake was reapplied, and finally stuck, in the 20th century.
For much of its history, Mortlake was a hive of industrial activity, particularly dominated by the Australian Gas Light Company who by 1884 were producing gas in Mortlake and providing work for the growing community. The suburb, with its river frontage, was ideal for the industrial process, with the river transporting the coal which was needed for the production of the gas, to the factory. The coal was heated then the gases which were produced were removed, cooled, cleaned and purified, ready for market. Then, in 1971, the process of producing gas from coal was discontinued and natural gas from the interior of Australia was piped to Mortlake instead. Now, all the factory needed to do was add an odour to the gas (for safety reasons) and distribute it to customers. In 1990 the gasworks finally closed.
This week, with the holidays underway and many Sydneysiders heading to the country to enjoy the best Spring has to offer, it seemed the perfect time to look at one of the magnificent feats of engineering which are to be found in our many stunning national parks. Burrinjuck Dam, or Barren Jack Weir as it was once known, and as it is described on the postcard above, is just one of these.
Burrinjuck Dam is on the Murrumbidgee River about 60 kilometres from Yass and today is marketed as a popular area for bushwalking, camping and water sports. Yet in 1906, when the construction of the Dam began, the scheme was created for an extremely different audience, and even today, the water is vital for reasons other than tourism. The dam was the first in NSW to be built specifically to provide water for irrigation and provided water to the government sponsored Murrumbidgee Irrigation Scheme. The scheme allowed the Murrumbidgee Valley to develop as a thriving agricultural centre, producing everything from fruit to rice. At the time when the dam was built, it was the fourth largest dam in the entire world. In 1911 the name Barren Jack, which the dam was originally known as, was changed to Burrinjuck, an Aboriginal word used for the area. Due to interruptions caused to construction by World War 1, the dam was not completed until 1928, but even before completion, there had been two major floods which proved the viability of the scheme.
Today, between Burrinjuck and Blowering Dams (the latter of which is near Tumut), the Murrumbidge is able to provide for the irrigation needs of the Murrumbidgee Valley and the area is responsible for providing NSW with up to 90% of our potatoes, 80% of our carrots, 50% of our rice and 25% of our other fruits and vegetables.