When the Englishman, Captain James Cook discovered Australia in 1770 and sailed up the coast of Australia, he sailed into Botany Bay (near today’s Sydney Airport), but after sailing from Botany Bay, he only noted the headlands of Sydney Harbour without sailing into the Harbour itself as he headed north up the coast.
Eighteen years later in 1788 Captain Arthur Phillip and the ‘First Fleet’ carrying supplies and shiploads of convicts from England initially landed at Botany Bay, but then a few days later re-located to Sydney Harbour coming ashore where today’s Circular Quay is located. It was here that the first settlement was set up – with fresh water flowing into the Harbour from the Tank Stream – which today flows under the city’s skyscrapers from near Town Hall to a pipe that flows into the Harbour at Circular Quay.
While aboriginals – today’s Koori People had been living around Sydney Harbour for thousands of years, only a few isolated rock carvings and middens (shells) can be seen from the time before the First Fleet’s arrival in Sydney.
Sydney Harbour is one of the world’s great harbours, and Sydney has grown up around it. What you are seeing is a sunken valley that has filled with sea water with Parramatta River flowing into it. The harbour has a depth that varies from less than a metre to around 45 metres in depth, and on its shoreline you will see rocky outcrops and weathered rock formations in various colours of sandstone. Sandstone became the rock that most of Sydney’s larger buildings from the 1800’s were built from. Some of the best examples of houses built from sandstone can be found in Hunters Hill, many built be stonemasons who came from France.
One of the great differences between England, where the convicts and early settlers came from was the timber that could be used. While the new settlers were used to using timber – it was soft woods like English Oak, whereas all the trees in Sydney and surrounds were hardwoods – with great names given to the trees, like Iron Bark! This hardwood from Eucalyptus trees would make an axe go blunt in a very short time, and even when it was used to build timber buildings or fences, these would rot out or be eaten by Whiteants – which is why almost none of the early timber buildings have survived to this day. Sandstone would however, once quarried and cut into shape by a stonemason last almost forever.
In very early Sydney, brick kilns were also established and they were able to use local clays and make lime for the mortar, often using the midden piles of shells (oyster shells) left by aboriginal people along the shoreline. One of these kilns still exists near a pathway on Goat Island.
Sydney was set up as a penal settlement, using the convicts as labour and British Government funds to start building the settlement. From the time of Captain Arthur Philip, a succession of Governors followed, the most notable being Governor Lachlan Macquarie – the building Governor.
Today, there are still buildings that he commissioned and built in the early 1800’s constructed in sandstone, such as the Conservatorium of Music, originally built as a stable for horses, as well as other buildings in and around Sydney.
Sydney’s sandstone buildings from the 1800’s are living testimony to the architectural and craftsman skills of the quarrymen and stonemasons of that century. To see some of the best examples of these buildings, take a walk in and around the Rocks, along Bridge Street and Macquarie Streets in the CBD.
As Sydney developed from the city centre, westwards to the Rocks and eastwards to Darlinghurst, residential houses were built in an English style – as Terrace Houses and large number of these Terrace houses still survive today in the Rocks, Darlinghurst and then to areas further distant but still close to the city in Glebe, Balmain and Annandale to the west, east to Paddington and Woollahra and south to Surry Hills.
To determine the age of a terrace house – there are some distinctive styles. The earliest ones were attached and bald faced with the front door directly onto the street, with one step to the pavement. Some of these smaller terraces can still be seen in the Rocks. This style then evolved into Terraces with a small front yard with an overhanging veranda, and depending on the owner ‘s wealth and position – Terraces with a wider frontage, more decorative iron lace work, and even up to 3 and 4 stories. Some terraces were built in stone, but most were built using bricks.
If you look just to the west of Darling Harbour you will see some larger warehouse style buildings – which were formerly Wool Stores, with the docks being in Darling Harbour for ships to carry the wool to England. The Wool trade was at the time very lucrative, and a number of merchant homes were built on this wealth. Many of these homes were built along the Harbour foreshore in Darling Point, Vaucluse and on the North Shore around Bradleys Head, accessed by boat or ferry and these houses can still be seen today.
Sydney didn’t really get its own housing style until the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, before the first World War in what is called the Federation Style, and the best examples of this can be seen in Mosman, Cremorne, Strathfield, Burwood and Haberfield – with the houses build on a stone foundation, with double brick work, fretwork around a small porch/front veranda, a central hallway with rooms to the sides and a tile roof. The earliest houses had slate roof tiles, and then later Red Tile roofs – Marseilles Tiles brought to Australia as Ballast in ships that were used to ship wool from Sydney back to England. A new variation of this style was the Californian Bungalow – with wider shady verandas, stucco feature walls and a lower roof style, and there are examples of this style scattered around Mosman and Haberfield.
During the war, many of the tradesmen from Sydney went to fight and were killed, leaving a shortage of skilled labour in Sydney, and also a shortage of building materials. This led to the Government permitting lower ceiling heights inside homes (to save on materials) and a change in the style of houses being built in the era leading up to the Second World War.
While the Federation era had a fairly defined style, the post Second World War period, even up to today, houses have become more individual in their design.
During the 1950’s in the post war period, as cars enabled people to travel further away from their work, the Australian dream of ‘owning your own home’ with a large backyard to play cricket became a reality to many, and people moved into suburbs further away from the city.
Migration also became a factor, and large numbers of Italians and Greeks arrived taking up residence in suburbs like Leichardt.
In the 1990’s and up to today, suburban houses have become larger, the backyards smaller, and the era of the McMansion has taken place. At the same time there has been a swing back towards urban living, and high rise apartments in the city and suburbs close to the city are changing the way that Sydneysiders typically live.
This is reflected in the city itself, where the high rise buildings were strictly office space, they are now a mix of both office towers, and apartment buildings.
Sydney has been lucky to retain many of its historic buildings, but many have been destroyed too. Like all cities, there are changes taking place every day, some of them good and some bad.
One thing is certain however, and that is that the Harbour itself is still the centrepiece and this is accessible to all Sydneysiders and visitors too.
I hope you enjoy your time in Sydney.