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Our Australian Cousins
Chapter XII


Sydney—Her magnificent harbour—Its unrivalled beauties—The city—General charge of dirtiness—Not so bad as it is generally .painted—Comparison of Sydney with other towns—Sydney for her age a wonderful city—Rapid extension—General aspect of the city—The suburbs—Suburban villas—Sydney freestone— Small allotments and undue sub-division of land—Absence of cottage gardens—Want of sanitation—The term "Cornstalk"— Sydney streets—Public buildings—Causes of her chronic indebtedness—Unfitness of her aldermen—Testimony of one of their number—Summary.

My next place of sojourn after quitting Queensland was Sydney—who has not heard of Sydney, with its famous harbour ? "What schoolboy knows not the strange, romantic history of Captain Cook, and the beautiful inlet he discovered and christened Botany Bay ? What strange associations are connected with the early history of this wonderful settlement! What an eventful wealth of incident has gathered round the city in its hundred years or less of existence! Many points in the historical retrospect might well be shrouded in oblivion. The wrecked hopes, the bad passions, the stupid political blunders, the sad memory of brutalities, failures, cruelties, and crimes, all fade quite away in presence of the majestic beauty with which bountiful nature has surrounded the city. The eternal barriers of rock still frown over the everheaving sea, that lashes itself into furv on their adamantine fronts as sternly as they did myriads of years ago. The sun reflects back the glory of his beams from countless inlets of placid loveliness; and the marvellous beauty of the harbour is so perfect that even all the prosaic, oft-times disfiguring evidences of man's presence, the pollution of the city's drainage, the frowning batteries, lowbrowed mounds that mark torpedo-firing stations, smoke of steam-ships and factories, and all the uglinesses of our utilitarian age of coal, iron, smoke, and steam, are powerless to dim the lustre of the majestic profusion of beauty which is here presented on every hand.

In the broad and noble reaches of this truly magnificent bay the navies of the world might ride at ease. To explore the intricacies of every successive opening, and appraise the beauties of the countless nooks and windings, each more beautiful than the other, would be the task of many summers of holidays.

It is no wonder that the first question asked of the stranger or visitor by the Sydney native is,—what do you think of the harbour? Yet the first impression, I must confess, a little disappointed me. I expected the vegetation would have been more luxuriant; the scenery bolder and more wild. There is little or no cultivation about the shores of the harbour. There --are, barring the bold frowning "Heads" at the entrance, no rocky pinnacles, sharp peaks, or towering crags. The hills all around are gently swelling knolls, clothed with the dull sombre verdure of the Australian bush. The scenery is not so vividly green as Point de Galle, Ceylon, nor so strikingly picturesque and varied, perhaps, as Oban, some other of the bays and harbours on the west coast of Scotland. As you steam up the harbour, however, opening after opening breaks upon your view. The water is flashing beneath the rays of a semi-tropical sun; huge masses of the freestone, so characteristic of the city, skirt the water's edge; the thick scrub covers every eminence and undulation; fantastically-shaped islands are crowned with Norfolk pine, gum-trees, and undergrowth, but all of a uniform, sombre tint. The entrance to Woo-loomaloo Bay is magnificent. McQuade's Point and Garden Island are perfect gems of living verdure; the Botanical Gardens, enriched with the plants and flowers of every clime, look green, cool, and secluded; the city lies spread out before you, crowning the heights; with cozy villas, nestling amid groves of ornamental trees, and neat little cottages peeping out at every point. As we forge slowly ahead, winding channels appear on every side, each disclosing some view more lovely than its neighbour. The sky-line is broken by the steeples, towers, domes, and public buildings of the city; Government House, situate in a spacious demesne, beautifully laid out and kept, forms a prominent feature in the foreground, and the graceful facade and bold architecture of the mighty mass of building, now known to all the world as the Sydney International Exhibition, stands forth as an evidence to the arriving visitor, of the glorious promise, the boundless resources, and mighty future which is in store for this wonderful country.

To the right we have the north shore with its churches, terraces, and gardens; on the left "Wooloo-maloo seeming a huge city by itself; and far ahead, the piled-up masses of the buildings, all of solid sandstone loom out in the morning mist, vague, shadowy, and undefined, against the sky-line. Massive walls of masonry line the harbour on all sides, whilst each fresh channel discloses endless shipping with its busy crews and labour-gangs. Looking back across the noble stretch of water, you see the Heads once more grimly guarding the portals of approach to this scene of wondrous beauty. It is, however, more from a nautical point of view that the magnificence of the harbour strikes your imagination. Here is deep water close up to the land on all sides, with room for the accumulated navies of the world. The harbour is entirely land-locked, and thus protected from every gale; it can be "made" in any weather, and its waters lie unruffled, no matter what hurricane may be raging without. It is indeed a noble refuge. "Well may the natives of Sydney pride themselves on its possession.

Of the city itself, I am afraid that strict truthfulness compels one to give a less flattering estimate. A closer acquaintance does not disclose many fresh beauties. Sydney, even by its most pronounced admirers, is generally admitted to be a dirty town. The inhabitants have been so long in the habit of hearing this proverbial reproach of filthiness, levelled against their queen city of the south, as they delight to call it, that they have come to acquiesce in it; and in a half apologetic, half indignant way they reluctantly allow the truth of the general dictum. And yet, comparatively speaking, perhaps Sydney is not after all such a filthy town as is generally imagined. Certainly to see it during a continued spell of wet weather, when the mud is churned up on the macadamised roads, by the throng of vehicles, quadrupeds, and pedestrians, till the streets are covered foot deep in places, with the sloppy deposit, would not favourably impress a stranger. Or again, let the observant foreigner encounter the full force of a "southerly buster," in one of the principal streets of the New South Wales metropolis; his remarks, if heard at all amid the dust-laden whirlwinds, will hardly be pleasant to hear, yet, under ordinary circumstances, the streets of Sydney are not half so bad as the tongue of detraction would make them. Granted, that in wet weather they are miry to a more than ordinary degree. Granted, that in dry windy weather, the dust whirls in eddying volumes through every thoroughfare, blinding the traveller, destroying clothes and any exposed merchandise, and exacerbating the temper, still, under similar circumstances, Sydney is not a whit inferior to other towns of equal pretensions, but might perhaps issue favourably from a comparison.

Take, for instance, Melbourne or even London. Sydney in its fiercest tornado, in its gustiest, dustiest, and bleakest day cannot for a moment vie with the whirlwinds and columns of dust, that completely blind the sun, on a windy day, in the Victorian capital. In her -slushiest moments, the pavements are never so greasy, slimy, and dangerous to pedestrians, as are the pavements of the Modern Babylon during the continuance of a genuine November fog.

It has become quite the fashion with a certain class of travellers, to spy out only the bad features of a landscape. They have the nose of a sleuth-hound for an unsavoury taint, can follow the trail of a "drag," with unerring accuracy; but the fragrant perfume of the violet and woodruff, for them waste their sweetness on the desert air. It is no evidence of a cultivated taste, or even of much critical acumen, to be eternally finding fault. That the streets of Sydney are unfortunately narrow and crooked, that the pavements are rough and uneven, that the drainage is defective, and that the order of street architecture does not come up to the marble glories of Tuscan Palaces or rich" picturesque adornment of Princes Street in Edinburgh; no one will for a moment deny. But in this as in most; other cases, the superficial aspect is not often the truest, and the apparent is not the most just criterion of the real.

The city, as I have said, is scarcely yet a century old. I do not intend in a book of rambling notes like this, to spin out a chapter on the earlier history of the Queen of the Pacific; but for its age, I think the natives may point with' pardonable pride to the progress that has already been made:—and if the promise of present progression be maintained, Sydney will yet vie with some of the finest cities of the world for architectural wealth and magnificence, as she indubitably now surpasses most in the splendour and beauty of her natural position and surroundings. "When in the old convict days, the first palisades were erected, and the barracks, gaol, stockades, stores, and other nondescript structures of a penal settlement were laid out, the founders of the tiny township could little have foreseen the mighty city that in so comparatively short a time was to extend its vast structures over all the surrounding heights.

The overflow of bricks and mortar has spread like a lava-flood, over the adjacent slopes, heights, and valleys, till the houses now lie, pile on pile, tier on tier, and succeed each other row after row, street after street, far into the surrounding country; and the eruption is still in active play, and everywhere the work of building and city extension proceeds at a rapid pace. The invasion of construction has bridged the harbour, and laid out streets innumerable on the North Shore: masonry crowns every island in the spacious basin—every projecting buttress of rock maintains a pedestal of wall and gable and roof. Verandahs overrun the heights, and chimney-stacks peep out from the hollows. The sand drives are covered with cottages, the very marshes have a crop of dwellings, that are constantly springing up, like mushrooms; - often alas, like that, very fragile and brittle and little calculated to withstand a lengthened wear and tear, nurtured in corruption and redolent of putridity and decay. Land is so valuable, that open drains have been boxed in with timber, and weatherboard cottages have been in many cases erected on this fever propagating substructure. Handsome villa residences, match-box cottages, toy houses, and flimsy habitations stud the slopes in all directions round the city; and suburban extension is proceeding with wonderful speed. Everywhere the sound of the workmen's tools is heard, all through the busy day. Brick-yards are worked to their utmost capacity; iron foundries are taxed to their greatest powers, saw-mills and joinery establishments are in full activity, and at present the building trades are in constant and vigorous employment.

The villas in the suburbs of Sydney, those at least of the better sort, may well excuse a pardonable feeling of exultation on the part of the native-born New South Welshman. These villas, many of them, would do credit to any capital in Europe. Those of stone arc built of the magnificent white sandstone for which the Sydney quarries are famous. It hardens by contact with the air, and assumes a rich warm yellow tint which is very effective, and pleases the artistic eye.

Even the less pretentious structures bear many marks of good taste, and an advanced order of embellishment. Indeed the suburban villas of Sydney inhabited by the well-to-do tradesmen, the highly intelligent, quick witted, practical, money-making middle classes, give one a high opinion of the material prosperity, and the solid domestic comfort which their appearance implies. But these unfortunately are only the plums in the pudding. The mass is composed of more objectionable elements.

When we come a step lower, and look at the workmen's dwellings, and speculators' houses, the picture is not without its shadows—Building Societies are very plentiful and numerically strong in membership in Sydney. The great aim of the well-to-do mechanic is to run up a house of his own. By aid of the building societies he is enabled to indulge his laudable hobby; but in his haste to become the possessor of this house of his own, which he so much covets, he is not so particular as he ought to be as to solidity of construction, and excellence of material. As a result of the prevalence of this desire of the artisan to become a proprietory householder, the land has acquired an abnormal value. Building sites are therefore enormously dear. Areas have to be circumscribed—societies, speculators, jobbers, have bought up all the estates, and vacant blocks around Sydney; and they divide and sub-divide, and cut up these, into little rabbit-hutch patches, and the houses spring up like bee-hive cells, each containing a working bee it is true; but little honey, I am afraid, will ever be extracted from the vast ever-growing hive.

To illustrate my meaning. There are few cottage gardens about Sydney. Land is too valuable and too much cut up into fifty-feet sections, to admit of horticulture. What gardening ther^is, is in the hands of chinamen, whose prosaic souls do not rise above the level of culinary roots and herbs. There are few flower-plots about the workmen's houses of Sydney. There are still fewer back gardens. The pot-herb patches, the mushroom beds, homely cabbage rows, of artisan dwellings in western Europe, are altogether wanting. The cottages are dependent entirely on purchased poultry and meat for the requirements of their cuisine, and where beef and mutton can be had all the year round from twopence to fourpence per pound, it is not considered worth the trouble to keep pigs or poultry in the back yard. I am strongly of opinion, that flowers exercise a deeply softening influence on those who are brought continually into contact with their bright presence, and I should like very much to see more attention bestowed on flower culture by the cottagers around Sydney, than seems to be in prospect at present.

Another indication of the absence of honey from this hive, is the dirt and disorder which characterizes the surroundings of many of these habitations. In the small back yards may often be seen a heterogeneous collection of battered kerosine cans, broken boxes, empty bottles, and the debris of turned preserves and provisions, worn-out shoes, and a general assortment of rubbish and filth, which are highly offensive to every sense, and cannot be conducive to health of body or mind. Sanitation seems utterly ignored. Be it understood that there are many pleasing exceptions to this state of affairs. Let no excitable Cornstalk let loose the vials of his indignation on my devoted head, and consign me to the tender mercies of all the infernal furies, as a vile detractor, a scurrilous scribe, a jealous, venomous cynic, who libels wholesale a glorious people and basely truckles to the sneering antipathy that the bloated aristocrat ever bears to the horny-handed sons of toil.

Our "Cornstalk" cousins are keenly sensitive to criticism. They do not love adverse comment, and are rather jealous of anything savouring of depreciatory remark, but I only care to speak my own honest convictions, founded on observation.

Home readers ought to be told that "Cornstalk" is the generic nickname applied to the native-born New South Welshman. Its application was originally confined to the natives of the Hawkesbury river valley; they are thus dubbe'd from the prevailing tendency of the adolescens simplex of Australia to run somewhat more to length than to breadth. The young Queenslander, again, is called "A Banana boy." I really do not know if the young Victorians have a nickname at all, and on application to a friend of Sydney sympathies, to know if any there be, I was told, "No—they're not even worth a nickname."

One great drawback, immediately perceptible by even the most inexperienced or carelesi observer, is the narrowness of the principal streets. The great main artery of the older and business part of the city is George Street. This was formed on no definite plan. As the city grew in importance, and ship after ship began to find its way to the magnificent land-locked harbour, where they could lie secure from the vexed waters outside the Heads, and lay in ever-increasing cargoes of tallow, and hides, and horns, and wool, the buildings began to increase in numbers and size; but as yet they were built after no uniform plan, and with little perception of the great future that lay before the city. The present site of George Street was then a bullock track, meandering over the ridges, and through the swampy hollows, and along this primitive via dolorosa the weary yoke-galled teams of oxen would drag their massive lumbering dray and its piled-up bales of wool, thick with the dust of a three or four -months' journey, over the dusty tracks through the endless bush, on. to the spacious debouchement, at Circular Quay. Along this track (at intervals that grew less frequent as time went on), public-houses and little shops, and general stores and blacksmiths' shanties, and other nondescript erections gradually rose, and lined the pathways, and thus slowly and unmethodically the great central street was formed.

Never was a glorious site for a city more unhappily spoilt. -But the early settlers were not gifted with prescience, and many of their descendants, sad to say, seem blessed with no more advanced ideas than possessed the somewhat stolid and apathetic brains of their ancestors. The fairy godmothers of Sydney gifted her with a noble site, magnificent surroundings, and the finest building material in the world; but a combination of disorder, narrow-mindedness, impecuniosity, greed, jealousy, venality, have retarded her progress, and done their best to destroy her fair fame, and bring reproach upon her. But she is a handsome, and a progressive city in spite of it all, and if she maintains her present rate of progress, and finds capable and patriotic men to preside over her councils, she may yet sit among the nations, one of the proud cities of the universe, and claim with justice her boasted titles of the pearl of Australia and metropolis of the Antipodes.

Within the last ten years the strides which have been made in every part of the ever-growing city in mural decoration are astonishing. In York Street for instance, the lower part of Pitt Street, and that lower portion of the city more particularly devoted to government buildings and offices, vast piles of buildings have been reared, which for breadth of design, harmony of detail and evidences of taste, wealth, and general excellence, will compare favourably with many of the most famous cities of the old world. York Street, reaching in a long vista of imposing fronts and princely edifices, closed at the one end by the magnificent proportions of the stately Town Hall and grand Cathedral, and opening out at the other into the trim, fresh greenery, and handsome mansions of Wynyard Square and gardens, forms a street that any capital might be proud of. Some of these merchants' palaces, built of the magnificent Sydney freestone, have cost upwards of 30,000Z. and everywhere as old leases fall in, the work of demolition of old rookeries and reconstruction of handsome modern buildings proceed apace.

The new Lands Office, the Town Hall, the Museum, Cathedral, University, Post-office, Exchange, Mutual Provident Buildings, and the offices of banks and corporate bodies, are not one whit behind the best of similar structures in cities of much greater pretensions than Sydney, and many of the worst features of old Sydney are fast being obliterated, by the rapid march of modern taste and improvement.

Take for instance the splendid pile erected recently in "Wynyard Square, for Messrs. Cowan and Co., the famous paper-makers. From the basement story, sunk in the % solid rock, to the topmost tier of the stately front, everything that modern architectural skill and experience could dictate has been expended in making the building a model of convenience and elegance. The erection alone cost 15,000Z., and the mere site, consisting of sixty-four feet of frontage by eighty feet of depth, is, at the present moment, worth upwards of 6000/. Ten years ago 1000Z. would have been considered ample value for such a bit of land. In all parts of the city the price of building sites has increased in a like proportion. Frontages to Pitt and George Streets, in the more central and favoured spots, would now cost not less than 300/. to 400/. per foot.

Some of the more recent mercantile erections, such as those of Messrs. Dalton Brothers, R. Gray and Sons, Hoffnung and Co., JohnFraser and Co., Newton Brothers, and many others, have cost certainly not less than from 20,000/. to 30,000/. each. This fact alone speaks volumes for the material prosperity of the colony, and it affords the strongest possible evidence that these firms have confidence enough in the future of the country, when they are found willing to invest such enormous sums in stone and lime.

While giving due praise, however, for whatever is praiseworthy, one cannot shut his eyes to the fact that, with better municipal government, the city might have been in a more advanced state now than it is. In the matter of sewerage, for instance, things are in an appalling state. Not wishing to state anything but bare facts, I applied to one of the aldermanic body for information on this subject. My informant is a shrewd, sensible man of the world, who has travelled far, and he is known as one of the most pushing, energetic, and successful contractors that has ever set foot in Australia. Referring to the lamentable defects in sanitary arrangements, and the chronic indebtedness of the city, I got from him the following information in writing, which is interesting, and may be taken as correct:—

"The Commission of twenty-five years ago (1854), appointed by government, consisting of two or three irresponsible persons, in order to make a show of doing something for the benefit of the city, set to work and constructed, or rather misconstructed some sewers, and they could not have done much less, for the large amount of money they expended, than they did. For the workmen employed in the work drank champagne daily, the cost of which must have proceeded from the funds paid for the work—and such work! Some of the sewers were made with flat bottoms of rough, sand-stone flags. "Where brick sides were built it was thrown together, and many of the sewers were only planked over with boards; these rotted and not unfrequently, after a storm, may be seen in Pitt Street the tops of these, all rotted away, and the metal and rubbish below in the sewer."

Things seem' to have made but little progress in all these years, for the same system is still pursued. In the sewer leading to the Black Wattle Swamp, for instance, the crown of the sewer is above the roadway, and in many cases from six to eight feet above the floors of the cottages along the street.

"Thirty to forty years ago," continues my friend, " between what is now George and Pitt Streets, there ran and trickled a crystal stream, -called the Tank Stream. Its course being over clean sandstone rock, it formed the water supply of old Sydney, and to make the most of it, large tanks were cut in the rock to retain a supply. By-and-by the houses got thicker and closer, until the water became too contaminated to be used for drinking purposes, and the stream became more of a sewer than anything else, and at the same time very offensive. When the Commissioners carried out what they called improvements, they turned the sewage of the principal streets into this Tank Stream: and to this day a number of shops and houses about Hunter and Bridge Streets, are erected over this open sewer and over tanks, through which the sewage passes, and in many of the buildings, by taking up the flooring the sewage can be seen underneath. This is not yet rectified, for within the last few months a petition was presented to the Municipal Council, from some jewellers' and others, stating that the effluvia arising from' the sewage actually turned their metal-work blue.

"How persons can quietly live over such pest-generators is marvellous. And now the Corporation have not the power to borrow money to remedy these evils; in fact, as it now stands, they must not turn any more sewage into the harbour, or construct any sewer. We are promised next session an act to construct new sewers for Sydney, under a plan approved of by a Commission appointed twelve years ago for that purpose, and within the last year or two, corroborated by Mr. Clark, C.E., a gentleman sent for from England to examine into the sewerage and water supply for Sydney. But, while the grass is growing the steed is starving. Still, perhaps in another ten years, we may get some of the sewers made, and some few improvements inaugurated, if we are not all dead from typhoid in the meantime.

"But to return to the Commission of 1854. They managed to spend 3 or 400,000/., and got very little indeed for their money. It was a job from beginning to end. The contractor, it is said on good authority, made upwards of 50,000/. profit from them, besides all the champagne and other drinks required in those thirsty times.

"It was about this time that the wharf on the west side of the Circular Quay was constructed, where the planking used was largely of spruce and other timber, that rots in a year or two, and upon this metal was placed; consequently, soon afterwards all had to be taken up and replaced, but not before all had been paid for previously.

"But this sort of thing came to an end, and about twenty years ago, the corporation as at present constituted undertook the management of the city, very foolishly without having had proper legislative powers given to them. For their Building Act was an abortive one, and could not be enforced. It was intended to enforce a sewage rate, but after levying it, they could not obtain payment, and so it lapsed, and it is only in this present year (1879) that a new Building Act has been passed by the Legislature, and also a new Sydney Corporation Act."

In answer to a question, "What points in the Municipal system of Sydney most need reform, my correspondent goes, I think, very near the root of the difficulty. He says, " Many of the aldermen are men who came to the country thirty years ago, at the time young, and without experience, having only had the opportunity of seeing Sydney, or in some few cases perhaps Melbourne as well. They are therefore, deficient in knowledge of the progress achieved in other towns in municipal affairs, and the improvements constantly being made, and they consequently are narrow-minded, and inclined to fancy Sydney is the world."

He charges these "fossils of a primary epoch," with want of enterprise or broad, liberal views, and with having no general experience, and his accusation is echoed by every independent newspaper in the country. And yet the citizens return such men year after year. Why ? Because they fancy their rates will thus remain stationary, insufficient as they are to provide for the due government of the city, and though their wives may droop, and their little ones wither, and their streets be a reproach to the world, yet will their miserable pockets be untouched. It is only lately that one candidate for civic honours boasted on the hustings, that his principal claim on their suffrages was the fact, that "he had never been thirty miles outside of Sydney."

Under enlightened and liberal treatment, Sydney might be made truly a Paradise of residence, as one Sydney native called it. Unless capable men, however, take the helm, the present system of dust-bin and sink-hole will continue, and her name will stink in the nostrils of men, as her streets now undoubtedly do in a more literal sense in those of her pedestrians. Still, I have, while showing her defects, also pointed out a few of the promising features which exist.

I have shown the marvellous progress that has been made in some directions within the past few years. There seems to be a moving among the dry-bones. The fossils are disappearing, and vigorous and progressive young men are coming to the front. If the city's progress in some respects has been so pronounced in spite of all drawbacks, under the depressing influences of long-continued droughts, great commercial depression, hard times, and general depreciation of pastoral and station properties, what may we not expect to see within the next couple of decades ? Our uneven pavements, our hambling shambling shops, ricketty warehouses, and unsightly blocks of old-fashioned cramped structures, are rapidly giving place to buildings more worthy of the age, and more suggestive of the great future of the colony. The city will ever lie under the disadvantage of having her principal streets too narrow and tortuous, but many of the more superficial and potent objections that might be made to her ranking among the great capitals of the world are fast disappearing; and Sydney bids fair to become, what from her position and surroundings she was destined by nature to be, the fit representative of a great and powerful nation.


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