material culture, migration and everyday life

Tag: history

Contextualising Sydney: 3# The coming of the car and homes for the people

The motor car introduced a level of mobility never before imagined and, in the process, changed the shape and character of Sydney. Housing, work and social life were affected by this transport revolution.

Until car ownership became widespread in the prosperous 1950s, most houses were built within walking distance of a rail or tram line. Public transport was used to go to work, attend church or school, or “go to town” to shop. The car made a new kind of development possible. Suburbs of detached houses, with garages or carports, began to fill the spaces between the main transport lines. The postwar influx of migrants and the “baby boom” fuelled demand. Sydney spread out as town planners answered the demand for a backyard for every family. Only the national parks to the north, south, and west of the city stopped Sydney becoming one of the most sprawling cities in the world.

The car and the truck revolutionized movement within the city. Commerce and industry no longer had to locate near a rail train line, and new suburban worksites provided car parks for their workers. The dominance of central city shopping faded with the rise of new car-based suburban shopping centers as North Ryde (1957), Warringah Mall (1963), Miranda Fair (1964) and Roselands (1965).

Roselands Shopping Centre in 1965. Source: dailytelegraph.

In the 1920s and 30s, most drivers were middle-class makes who could afford a car, or men who had access to a car or a truck for work. When mass car ownership arrived in 1950s, male drivers still predominated, but by the 1970s many women had licenses. Two-car households were common. The number of trips taken by each family quadrupled as cars were used for almost every outgoing.

“Sunday drives”, a family favourite of the 1950s and ’60s, soon lost their novelty. Instead, more and more households escaped the ever-growing city for a weekend away, particularly at the coast, either camping or staying in modest holiday houses. Motels, literally “motor hotels”, spread rapidly across both the rural and urban landscapes. Recreation and the car became inseparable.

As car ownership increased so did traffic congestion.  Transport engineers recommended a series of freeways and ring roads for Sydney, which were often hotly contested, especially by people whose houses and suburbs were likely to be affected by the insatiable demand for new road space. Some freeways were built, some were not, but Sydney drivers persist in their love affair with the car.

Until the 1870s most houses in Sydney had been built in rows of terraces, not unlike the housing in many British cities. by the 1880s, with the arrival of fast public transport in the form of trains and trams, the detached suburban house became the ideal. higher density housing was also in demand, and in the building boom after World War I, blocks of flats, unusually three-storey brick structures, proliferated in the inner east, harbourside and beachside suburbs.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s Australia suffered unemployment rates averaging 30 per cent. in some of the inner suburbs of Sydney over 50 per cent of workers were unemployed. overcrowding was rife, and most terrace houses had their balconies filled in to create extra accommodation. Many of the houses did not have adequate cooking and sanitary facilities.

Restrictions on building materials meant that very few houses were built during or immediately after World War II. the labor state government, which had created a housing commission during the war, begun to demolish some of the “slums” of 19th century terrace. in their place they built high-rise and low-rise blocks of flats in the inner city and detached houses in the suburbs for families who could not afford a mortgage.

Terrace houses, Sydney, 1940’s by Frank Hurley. Source: National Library of Australia

Australia had long held out the promise that all its residents, specially incoming migrants, could aspire to live in a home of their own. At the 1947 census, 60 per cent of Sydney householders rented and 40 per cent we’re buying or owned their homes. Twenty years later the proportion of owners and buyers had risen to over two-thirds.

Such a phenomenal rise in home ownership required tens of thousands of houses to be built. most of the new subdivisions, whether in the hinterland of the northern beaches or in the South and West, waited many years for infrastructure and transport services.

With the introduction of the first strata title legislation in Australian in 1961 it became much easier to buy a flat or home unit. blocks of flats fanned out along the major rail and bus routes. over a third of Sydney’s population now live in apartments or other attached dwellings, a much higher proportion then in any other Australian city.

Aspirations for home ownership continue unabated despite Sydney having the most expensive housing in Australia. Because of high prices the proportion of homeowners is now under 70 per cent and gradually failing. Sydney is home for some of Australia’s wealthiest and poorest citizens.

Until next time,


Scott, Ernest. 2002. A Short History of Australia.  Available online

State Library of NSW

The Museum of Sydney 

Contextualising Sydney: 2# On the move

By the 1870s Sydney had grown beyond a walking-distance city. Only its wealthier citizens could afford private carriages or horse- buses to the more salubrious suburbs on the fringes of the increasingly crowded inner city. The population continued to expand with alarming speed, almost tripling in the 20 years from 1871. Luckily, this coincided with the development of new forms of transport technology: the railway and the tramway.

First train leaving from the new  Central Station, 1906.  Source: Activity 154 Railway and Tramway construction

Although Sydney’s rail system was first designed for industrial and rural freight linking Sydney with its hinterland, it soon proved its worth in carrying people. By the 1880s rail lines were being planted and built to cater for the new suburban dwellers. With land cheap and plentiful, The Australian penchant for detached suburban houses became a reality for many.

While the railway serviced the far-flung suburbs, tram serviced suburbs closer to the city center. Steam trams were put into service for the International Exhibition of 1879 and proved so popular that they were retained and extended. The trams were electrified from 1898 and by 1910 Sydney had one of the world’s most comprehensive tramway networks, bigger than Melbourne and rivaling even Glasgow.

The railway and the tramway became the arteries of Sydney. Real estate developers rush to subdivide large blocks of land and small farms, from the northern line up to Hornsby to the southern line beyond Como. As the population grew, housing developments began to reach out from the city in every direction. Most houses were built within a kilometer or two of a rail or train line, with little development between the main transport routes. 

Trams running through Railway Square in the 1920s. Source: Sydney Tramway Museum

More dwellings were built in Sydney in the 1920s than in any previous decade. By this time, Sydney had expanded along the northern beaches (a tram line to Narrabeen), the north shore train line, and along the western, south-western and southern lines. Parramatta, Windsor, and the other Macquarie era towns all remained as separate settlements, as did Manly. All major beach and Harbour resorts were served by ferry or tram. Ferry companies promoted weekend outgoings to Sydney’s pleasure destinations around the Harbour. The railways catered to picnickers and hikers by providing a station at the Royal National Park to the south of the city and regular weekend excursions to the Blue Mountains. Sydneysiders began their love affair with the outdoors and the endless delights of its harbour.

Melbourne, with its riches from gold, surpassed Sydney in population, wealth and political importance from the 1860s. “Marvellous Melbourne” grew much faster than Sydney, especially in the 1880s boom.  To demonstrate its achievements, Melbourne held two huge international exhibitions in the 1880s, bringing it world attention. Both Sydney and Melbourn suffered in the 1890s depression, but Sydney recovered more quickly than Melbourne. 

Such was the competition between Sydney and Melbourne that when Britain’s six Australian colonies joined to become the Commonwealth of Australia on 1 January 1901 the Constitution stated that the new national capital must be at least 100 miles from Sydney. the federal authorities chose a sheep station not far from Yass, which could be served with a rail spur off the main Sydney to Melbourne line. The site was proclaimed in 1911 and named Canberra in 1913.

While Melbourne hosted the federal parliament from 1901 to 1927 and, more importantly, the growing federal government bureaucracies, Sydney outstripped its southern rival in population. By the early 1920s, Sydney became the first Australian city to pass the one million mark.  

Observers had begun to see Melbourne as the more traditional, more European city and Sydney as the brasher, more American city. Melbourne boasted Edwardian bayside resorts while the surf clubs of Bronte and Bondi made Sydney the center of the Australian surf movement.

Sydney Harbour Bridge under construction, 1930. Source: National Museum of Australia

Australia’s first underground railway opened in Sydney in 1926, but the real triumph came in 1932 with the opening of Sydney’s Harbour Bridge. The event received worldwide press coverage, not only because of the bridge’s size and harbour setting but because of images of a paramilitary horseman beating Labor Premier Jack Lang to the opening ribbon were wired around the world. The bridge became, overnight, the dominant international symbol for Australia.  Melbourne never recovered from this image coup, although it did successfully stage the 1956 Olympics. 

More rivalry was to come. After height restrictions were lifted in 1957, a building frenzy reshaped downtown Sydney into a “mini Manhattan”. Its ascendancy as the financial capital of Australia matched the rising skyline.   The completion of the spectacular Opera House in 1973 inspired a new era of Sydney pride and a dramatic new focus for the city and harbour. As a final blow, Melbourne lost its bid to stage the 1996 Olympic Games and Sydney won gloriously 2000. 

Until next time,


Scott, Ernest. 2002. A Short History of Australia.  Available online

State Library of NSW

The Museum of Sydney 


Contextualising Sydney: 1# Port city

As I undertake the ethnographic fieldwork in Sydney as part of this research project, after reading some books, articles, visiting some museums and exploring the city I want to share my impressions and learnings with you.  In this post, I will start with the first of four posts which aim to contextualize the city of Sydney from it’s beginning until present days. 

In 1786 the British government cast its eyes southward to New South Wales with the intention of relieving its overcrowded jails and establishing a strategic presence in the southern hemisphere. In May 1787, under the competent command of Captain Arthur Philip, the First Fleet of 11 ships carrying over 700 convicts and over 600 officers, marines and seamen set sail from England.

The fleet anchored in Sydney Cove on 26 January 1788 and Phillip founded a penal settlement on the banks of the Tank Stream. Government House, the first substantial building in the colony was the focus of social and political power from 1788 to 1845.

View of Sydney, c.1811, John Eyre; State Library of New South

In search of more fertile land, the settlement soon spread inland to Parramatta, where a town was laid out in 1790. Settlers also took up land near Bankstown and at Ryde, and along the rich alluvial plains of the Hawkesbury and Nepean rivers.

The European invasion of Australia had a devastating effect on the Indigenous people. As the settlement grew, their traditional food sources declined and European diseases brought dramatic loss of life. The conflict quickly followed, despite resistance by Aboriginal warriors.

Map of Sydney, 16 April 1788; Source: Unkown

When Lachlan Macquarie arrived to replace the deposed Governor William Bligh in 1810, he described Sydney as a town “in a most ruinous state of decay”. He began a major building program and established a substantial road system, with convict Francis Greenway as his favoured architect. Macquarie’s willingness to provide opportunities for ex-convicts offended many free settlers. Yet his legacy today includes Hyde Park Barracks, the Conservatorium of Music (built as Government House stables), Parliament House and The Mint (wings of the “Rum” Hospital).

By the time Macquarie left the colony in February 1822, Sydney had grown in size and sophistication from a penal settlement to a major trading port. It boasted a range of small businesses, a newspaper, a bank, a hospital, and lunatic and benevolent asylums. The census of 1828, which did not include Indigenous people, recorded a population of 10 800. Free immigrants, who had tricked into the colony from as early as 1793, comprised 13 percent of the non- Indigenous population.

Image from the Museum of Sydney by author, Vânia Pereira Machado

Sydney with its deep harbour and strategic position began its maritime life as Australia’s grandest port and remains so to this day, although most port activity has now shifted to Port Botany. Sealing and whaling provided most exports from the early colony. The wool industry soon eclipsed both, faltering only during the depression of the 1840s. Agriculture and mineral exports expanded while most imports came from other parts of the British Empire. Port facilities reminded concentrated around Circular Quay until the boom years of the 1880s and the development of huge wool stores at Darling Harbour.

The chaotic inner city quickly outgrew Macquarie’s street layout, and the maze of slums around the wharf areas became a focus of fear and division. The outbreak of bubonic plague in 1900 and a continuing death toll from typhoid led to a huge government clean-up of The Rocks and the building of new wharves from Woolloomooloo to Pyrmont.

Map of the town of Sydney 1837; Engraved by John Carmichael of Sydney

The Woolloomooloo finger wharf, hailed on its opening in 1912 as a “cathedral of commerce”, served the wool trade. The Walsh Bay finger wharves, built between 1905 and the 1920s after the plague clean-up, were also monuments to a new age.

Sydney grew rapidly after the discovery of gold near Bathurst in 1851. Although attention soon shifted to be more lucrative Victorian goldfields, Sydney’s economy had already benefited. Migrants poured into New South Wales from Britain and Ireland, lured by the promise of cheap land and agriculture opportunities. most settled in Sydney, where their labour was needed.

The inner southern and western suburbs were soon dotted with tanneries, breweries, bakehouses, clothing and boot factories, and a huge abattoir at Glebe Island. the foreshores of the harbour were fouled by industrial effluent and the skies polluted by smoke.

Gas gradually replaced coal and wood-fires stoves and also lit the city until the coming of electricity in the early 1990s. New dams were built to provide a reliable water supply for Sydney’s growing suburbs and sewage disposal was improved with ocean outfalls at Bondi and Manly.  Sydney had all the necessities of a growing city, thousands of kilometers from the great imperial ports of Britain, Europe, Asia, and the United States.

Until next time,



Scott, Ernest. 2002. A Short History of Australia.  Available online

State Library of NSW

The Museum of Sydney 


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