Travel Story Time to rock around The Rocks

Argyle St Cut closeup.
Picture: Ruari Reid

The colourful history of this part of Sydney is rooted in its convict past. Take a trip back in time to understand its importance in Australia's early development.

The Rocks area in Sydney is considered by many to be a home of fine dining, up-market boutiques, expensive hotels with exceptional views and the place where the large cruise ships dock. However, in the late 1800s it was anything but this.

When the first fleet anchored in the harbour Captain Arthur Phillip was regarded by the local Aboriginal people, the Gadigal, as a long-lost relative who had returned from the dead. This was due to his missing top front-right tooth, knocked out years before when he was a midshipman. During their initiation ceremony young male members of the Gadigal people had to endure their own front tooth being knocked out with a stone while showing no pain to be considered a full adult member of the tribe. When Governor Phillip arrived he was presumed to be a “returned” Gadigal man and was treated with respect and admiration.

Phillip was acutely aware of the need to defend this perfect anchorage from any rival French, Dutch, Portuguese or Spanish fleets wanting to colonise the land for themselves, so he ordered that guns be set atop the rocky ridges — lines of rock on the western side of Sydney Cove. Lieutenant William Dawes conducted astronomical experiments at the northern end of this area and the Dawes Point battery, completed in 1791, still stands beneath Observatory Hill.

The transported convicts were set to work to provide the new colony with stone for construction. This rocky area provided the quarry and work began. The “lines” as they were known were terraced, cut into, and laneways created leading from the cove to Observatory Hill.

Housing settlements were established and, due to the sloping terrain, open sewers ran along laneways from the top of The Rocks area to the water. One such laneway was Cornwall Lane, but because of the effluent was renamed Sewers Canal — Suez Canal today.

Early records of settlers are sketchy but in 1809 George Cribb, transported for theft, married a local convict Fanny Barnet, established a butchery business and managed to poison a water well in the process. He grew wealthy, mostly from an illegal distillery. The tale is told that his empire was threatened by the imminent arrival of his first wife from England. He sent Fanny back to England with 300 pounds but was blackmailed by Martha Cribb to sign over his fortune or be turned over to the authorities for running a still. On her untimely death he re-inherited his money but, unhappy and alone, he lost his wealth to gambling. The foundations and well can be seen at The Big Dig on Cumberland Street.

Cadman’s cottage at 110 George Street (1816) is the earliest-surviving building in the area, and there is a cluster of eight housing ruins dating back to the late 1800s which were built into the sandstone cliff face beneath Gloucester Walk. The houses were knocked down in 1938, leaving the foundations.

After many complaints from those conducting business between Darling Harbour and Circular Quay, it was decided to carve a passage between these points through the sandstone. Convicts began the work with picks in 1843 but it was soon suspended due to the sheer complexity of the task. Explosives were used in 1859. Large augers were used to drill into the rock, gunpowder was poured down and detonated. Drill holes can still be seen all along the edge of Argyle Street — and many others — in the rock formations.

The Cut ensured The Rocks was established as the trading and transit hub of Sydney Town. Coal, timber, tools — all were brought to New South Wales and unloaded from ships into warehouses, stored and distributed among the developing city. Three and four-storey buildings were put up and you can see large timber lintels and the block and tackle used to sway crates and bales up to the higher floors for storage. Almost every stone block used in the construction of these buildings still bears individual chisel markings — you can imagine the sheer physical effort it took to cut the stone, lug mud mortar — still showing crushed shells today — up from the quay and cement these blocks together.

The Rocks also became synonymous with shady characters, dubious business practices, drunken debauchery and brothels. By the end of the 1800s, the last of the fashionable people moved out and most of the houses in The Rocks were neglected and overcrowded. In 1900 the bubonic plague arrived at The Rocks. The area had become known as a slum and while water and sewerage had been connected since the 1850s, the system had fallen into disrepair. Only three deaths were recorded in The Rocks, one a 15-year-old boy named James Foy. However, public opinion and its reputation convinced the government to condemn and dismantle the area. 

Fortunately, a small area of the original settlement was preserved. A section running from Cumberland Street to Gloucester Street was used in the 1930s for machinery sheds for work on Bradfield and Freeman’s harbour bridge. Concrete covered the site in the 1950s and a bus depot was installed. In 1994, the site was excavated and the past revealed.

The Rocks Discovery Museum has three floors of history to show you. The Big Dig Archaeological Site has more than 750,000 artefacts recovered from the 1994 excavation. The Rocks is a unique part of Australia’s history and should certainly be on your list of places to explore.

 Top picture: The Argyle Street Cut close-up. Drill holes can be seen in the rock formation. Picture: Ruari Reid

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