Her Majesty’s Theatre

Her Majesty's Theatre

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.

Crowded Coogee And Beach Culture

This week, with the warm weather upon us, it seemed the perfect time for The Past Present to turn its attentions to Sydney’s spectacular beaches. Sydney is well supplied with beaches, from the famous and crowded, to the hidden places with nobody about. Today, Sydneysiders and visitors alike love to spend a hot day at the beach, yet this is certainly not a new phenomenon. As the photo above, showing a crowded Coogee in the early morning demonstrates.
Most of the population of not only NSW, but of the whole of Australia, live close to the coastline of our vast island home. Thus it is perhaps no surprise that the beach is a huge part of our culture, and a centre of leisure activities. Before European colonisation, and for many thousands of years, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples made use of the amazing resource which the beach, and the coastal waters provided.
Early European colonists saw the beach as a similar resource, and many of the early Europeans made a living collecting pears, farming oysters, fishing, sealing and whaling. For these early European colonists, the beach was not a place of leisure, and indeed in 1838 there were even laws which banned daytime bathing on beaches. By the late 19th century, the beach was a place which people picnicked and promenaded, yet still, swimming and surfing, which is today synonymous with beach culture, was a no no. It was not until 1902 that Randwick Council legalised all day bathing at all coastal beaches in their area. A year later, Manly Council also legalised day time bathing, and two years after that, in 1905, Waverley Council followed suit. In 1907 the first volunteer lifesaving clubs were established, and the future of the beach, and its central role in Australian culture was assured.

Musgrave Street Wharf

Musgrave Street Wharf Mosmans Bay Front

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.

The Scenic Railway

The Scenic Railway Katoomba Blue Mountains2This week, with the holidays rapidly approaching, it seems the perfect time to turn attention to one of the many attractions not far from Sydney. The Scenic Railway is a popular place for tourists to visit, and today is a reasonably comfortable, safe and not particularly terrifying ride. The historic and unique railway has quite a history though, and in its early days, as the postcard above demonstrates, was quite a different ride.
The Scenic Railway may be today a historic ride, but it was a working railway for the mines which were once situated at the bottom of the escarpment. By 1878 the mines, which mined not only coal but also kerosene shale, were in full operation and a system of cable tramways serviced them. The scenic railway we see today was one of these, carrying the mined materials to the summit of the mountain where they were transferred to another railway to be taken further, to local businesses who purchased the coal, and also to markets in Sydney.
Even before Scenic World was created, the railway carried more than just mined materials. Many miners caught a lift up from the mines in one of the coal carts, and later on weary walkers would also make the journey. A 12 seater car was built, named Jessie, and this was used on weekends and public holidays to carry passengers, even while the mines remained in operation.The car only carried 12 people, and rides cost sixpence. During the Second World War, American troops on leave heard of the railway and came to the Blue Mountains to visit and ride the engineering marvel. In fact, it was while Harry Hammon was loading coal for transport to Katoomba that he met up with a group of American soldiers. They had come to see the railway, and were disappointed to discover that it was only run on weekends. When the mine closed, Hammon and his sister Isobel Fahey took over the lease and began to operate the railway as a tourist attraction.


narrabeenThis week, The Past Present is focussing on a place name. Australia has some beautiful, and some fascinating place names, and yet all to often these names are simply taken for granted. The image above, from a postcard dated to circa 1910, shows Narrabeen, a coastal suburb of Sydney which is popular with beachgoers and those looking for some natural beauty.

Narrabeen is a beautiful spot, and has a rather beautiful name, but nobody seems entirely certain where this name comes from. There are however several theories. Many suggest the name is associated with the Aboriginal people who are the traditional owners of the area, the Guringai. According to these theories, the name may be derived from the Aboriginal word for wild swan, Narrabang. Another theory is linked to the account Lieutenant James Grant who passed through the area in 1801. According to his journal, the Aboriginal people called the mouth of the lagoon Narrowbine. Yet another theory suggests that the name comes from a plant which grows near the lagoon and which is known as Narrabin.

Others though suggest a perhaps more sensational story behind the name. According to this theory, the name is associated with the sad tale of the family of Captain Henry Reynolds who arrived with the First Fleet. He and his family were killed in a bushranger attack, and their home was burned down. The name for Narrabeen in this story comes from an Aboriginal girl named Narrabine, who helped the soldiers capture the men responsible for the murders.

Camping On The Minnamurra River

Camping Minnamurra

With holidays rapidly approaching and the June long weekend upon us, it seemed the perfect time to share the image above. The image is an evocative glimpse of what camping in Australia, and particularly in the Illawarra area was like in the early 20th century.

Camping has an incredibly long history in Australia. Aboriginal people lived in temporary dwellings, moving around the country from one place to another, while early European colonists often lived in tents of necessity. In fact the first fleet brought with it more than 600 tents! In the 1820s, people who visited Australia actually saw camping as the real Australian experience or the ‘Australian way’. History in Australia, an indeed the history of Australian development, is inescapably linked to camping.

By the 1860s though, camping was beginning to take on a new dimension, people were choosing to set up temporary camps for recreation and holiday camping was born. Water, whether a coastal beach or quiet river meander was often a real feature of holiday camping, and even today many campers head to campgrounds on the coast or situated next to a picturesque river scene. The image above captures a camp along the Minnamurra River. Whether it depicts a temporary holiday camp, or something of a more permanent settlement is unknown, but certainly, it is a glimpse into a national pastime which has been with us since the very beginning.

Picnicking On Parramatta River

Picnicking at Parramatta
This week, The Past Present is back in Sydney, investigating an image which is not only beautiful, but also very intriguing. Picnicking has long been a very popular pastime for Sydneysiders and there were many picnic grounds which sprung up around Sydney. The image above captures a glimpse of the picnic grounds at the Parramatta River, as the caption states, but the exact location is something of a mystery.
Parramatta itself is the site of Australia’s second oldest European settlement. Settlement began in early November 1788 when it became clear that more fertile land would need to be found to support the fledgeling colony. Soon farming was established in the area, and by the 1850s various other industrial processes had also moved in. In fact, by the 1850s it was actually Parramatta, not Sydney itself which was the main metropolis of NSW! This had a significant impact on the river itself, and pollution became a problem, but the natural beauty of the river continued to attract people none-the-less. Picnicking was popular, and various picnic areas like the one shown in the image above began to be established along the shores of the river. Some even included areas for swimming, such as Little Coogee (which was located in what is now Parramatta Park).

Promenading At Manly

Manly promenade

The image above is a glimpse into a pastime which, for many today, is something of a bizarre idea – promenading. Today, when we visit the beach we tend to enjoy lying about on the sand or playing in the water, but in the past beach goers often looked for a different pastime.

Manly has long been a popular beach for visitors to and residents of Sydney alike and many visitors today will recognise the wide pathway featured in this postcard image, though few use it for the once popular seaside pursuit, promenading. Promenading may sound very grand, but essentially it is a grandiose term for a stroll, usually in public, which is undertaken for a combination of pleasure and display. The Promenade, as the pathway between Fairy Bower and Manly is known, was built in 1898 atop the sewer line to Manly Beach, or as it was then known, Cabbage Tree Bay. As time went by, the Promenade was upgraded, being asphalted, having lighting installed and being lushly planted with pines. Women with hats, long dresses and parasols and men in suits, hats and waistcoats used the promenade not only to ‘take the air’, but also as a venue to see and be seen. There were strict rules to promenading, including a prohibition against promenading in swimming costume, but so popular was the pastime that visitors to the beach often found the promenade, not the beach, thronging with crowds!

Black Swans In The Botanic Gardens


Botanic Gardens Black SwansThe image above is a charming glimpse into a family day out and about in Sydney’s beautiful Botanic Gardens. Where we might think of feeding ducks today, the water fowl which the children in this image are feeding are Australia’s native Black Swan.

The black swan is an intriguing bird, native to many parts of Australia and an emblem associated with Western Australia. These large, majestic birds have long been popular in zoo’s and bird collections, and were also popular features of public parks like the Botanic Garden. Yet what is perhaps of most interest is what the phrase ‘black swan’ has come to mean.

A black swan is a metaphor for an event or discovery which is unprecedented, unexpected and surprising but which in hindsight, really isn’t such a surprise after all. The phrase actually comes from the Latin and the oldest known use of the metaphor came almost a thousand years ago, in Juvenal’s line “rara avis in terries nigroque simillima cygno” which translates to “a rare bird in the lands and very much like a black swan”. At the time, and for centuries after, the only swans known were white swans, so it was assumed that the black swan did not exist. Then, in 1697, Willem de Vlamingh, a Dutch explorer, discovered black swans in Australia, proving they did exist after all. This came as a great surprise, but in hindsight many acknowledged that it really shouldn’t have been such a shock – just as other animals came in other colours, not all swans were white. Today, Black Swan Theory, as introduced by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in 2007 is well known, but it all traces back to these majestic if unexpected birds which are such a feature of the Australian landscape.

Gosford Holidays

Untitled-1 copy

The image above is a beautiful glimpse into the history of a place which was once, and continues to be a popular holiday destination for many Sydneysiders. Yet the Gosford of today looks remarkably different to the Gosford captured in this snapshot!

Before European colonisation of Australia, the Gosford area was home to the Guringai and Darkinjung Aboriginal peoples, but it was not long after Europeans arrived in Sydney that the Central Coast was being explored. In 1788 and 1789 Governor Phillip himself explored the area around Gosford and it did not take long before timber getters and lime burners had begun to appear. The difficulty of accessing the area though meant that true settlement didn’t begin until 1823 and even in 1850 the road between Brisbane Water and the Pittwater area was just a rudimentary track.

In the 1880s though, with the completion of the railway link between Sydney and Newcastle, Gosford began to grow. Tourists began to see the Central Coast as an ideal holiday and leisure destination and soon began to flock to the surrounding area. In 1889, when the Hawkesbury Railway Bridge was opened, traveling to Gosford became easier and quicker, and the tourist industry continued to grow and thrive. By the early 20th century, and well into the 1960s, many Sydneysiders will recall heading up the coast for their annual holidays, enjoying sun, surf and sand on the beautiful Central Coast.