Susannah Place and the Rocks

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The Rocks is a historic area of Sydney just to the west of Sydney Cove, established shortly after the colony’s formation in 1788. It was originally a notorious area, the narrow streets and alley ways frequented by drunken sailors, thieves and prostitutes. But over the years it became an area of working class dwellings – small and cramped, crammed together with inadequate  sewerage and water facilities  –  a “Classic Slum” (to borrow  the phrase used by Frederick Engels‘ to describe Victorian age Salford).

In the 20th Century the area underwent major changes. Slum clearances followed the outbreak of bubonic plague in 1900, during the building of Sydney Harbour Bridge and during the 1950’s for the construction of the expressway that cuts through the area leading to the bridge.

In the 1970’s however, there was a kick back by local residents who didn’t want to be forcibly relocated, and who formed The Rocks Residents Group. With the support of Jack Mundey and his New South Wales Builders’ Labourers Federation a “Green Ban” was imposed to stop the demolitions. In 1975, a compromise was reached and the bans were lifted. All buildings north of the Cahill Expressway were to be retained, conserved and restored.

Today, the Rocks has undergone “gentrification” with gift shops, galleries, cafes and restaurants bringing in the tourists (including us!), but the area still contains a significant proportion of Housing Commission properties.However, the City Council policy is to sell housing as it becomes vacant to private owners, leading, no doubt, to local people being priced out and the area further gentrified.

There remain a large number of historic buildings in the Rocks, including Susannah Place, a row of four terraced houses built in 1844 which were occupied right up until 1990. We went past the houses, now preserved as a “living museum”,  during our walk over to Miller’s Point on our first day in Sydney. As we couldn’t get on a guided tour, we returned the next day.

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No attempt has been made to renovate the houses. They’ve been left just as they were when the last occupants vacated them. However, furniture has been installed typical of that found in the houses during the different periods they were occupied.

The Trust that owns the museum has conducted research into the lives of the residents and during the tour we were taken through the houses while the well informed guide told us their stories.

To someone who grew up in a town of working class Victorian Terraces, the houses were very familiar. Other than the use of corrugated iron sheeting used for the roofs and some other parts of the fabric of the buildings, I could have been back in Northern England. The houses were very typical, small “two up two down”. And the way the residents used the houses was similar to back home. For example, the front room was used as a “parlour” or “best room”. The residents lived in the back room, which was also the kitchen, while the front room was kept “for best”. This was exactly the same arrangement adopted by my grand parents and other relatives of their generation.

There were many other features that were reminiscent of terraced houses in Lancashire. They had small back yards where there was a wash house with a “copper”

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and a “privvy”. My grandparents also had an “outside toilet” which was still usable when I was a child (although they had modern facilities indoors too).

Here’s a few photos from inside some of the rooms

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It was an excellent visit – definitely worth making the effort to return for the tour. Very educational and interesting to learn about how several generations of working lass residents of the Rocks lived, brought to life with stories about real people related by an informative guide.

Afterwards we took a stroll through the streets of the Rocks

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I rather liked this monument to the early settlers, convicts and their guards.

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We also visited the (free entry) Rocks Discovery Museum which is housed in a restored 1850s sandstone warehouse in one of the old narrow streets. They have good, interesting exhibits about the original Aboriginal people who lived in the area, the establishment of the English colony and the history of the area right up to the protests by the residents, supported by the Trade Unions, in the 1970’s.

One of the things we learned during the visit that the roads of Sydney used to be paved with wooden blocks and that a section of  this had been recreated on George Street, not far from the museum. So after our visit we went to have a look.

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