Finding History in the Modern Sydney City Landscape


by Matt Davids

Sydney is a city that thrives in the modern age, with gleaming skyscrapers and architectural marvels such as the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House, not to mention the enviable location on some of the world’s greatest beaches. However, do not let this draw you away from the historical heritage of the city, the country may not be older than a few hundred years, but its formation is interestingly unique, and much of this is manifested in the physical environment nestled in amongst the modern city. From the earliest days of colonisation and convict settlement, to the ensuing years of development and growth as a more sophisticated colony and independent country, here’s a few examples of Sydney history to stop you strolling past and missing on your way to the harbour, or the beach.

Sydney harbour Bridge and Boat

The Bridge itself is historic, but there is much more to Sydney’s history than the major landmarks

The Rocks

The Rocks are aptly named, being a rocky headland in Sydney Harbour that has been inhabited for thousands of years by indigenous people and was also the site where the first convicts from Britain landed and set up camp. Over time it evolved into the busy port area in Sydney, and has had a turbulent past involving high levels of crime, prisoner activity, armed gangs and law makers each displaying strength to hold control of the area. Many of the buildings in the area have been preserved despite threats from developers and renovated to maintain their atmospheric appearance. There’s also a number of statues and plaques in the area giving you an idea of the locations inhabitants over the years.

The Rocks and Cadmans Cottage

The edge of the Rocks area, with Cadmans Cottage in the Bottom Right

Cadman’s Cottage

Cadman’s Cottage is one of the oldest buildings in Sydney, and survives from the early decades of the areas colonisation. It is an excellent and visit–worthy destination for anyone interested in getting a feel for what the area looked like originally. Now serving as a museum, it is located in Circular Quay near The Rocks, and therefore adding to the areas historical feel.

Hyde Park Barracks

Sydney has a habit of borrowing names from its past colonial master, and the Hyde Park Barracks is an example of this. Having been designed by a convict to house convicts in the early 19th century, it is an incredibly well preserved building that gives an excellent insight into the life of convicts in early Australia. Having started as accommodation for male convicts, it changed over the years to house female immigrants and then turned into a female asylum, which these days it can be explored as it is now a museum.

Fort Denison

Fort Denison forms a small island located in the middle of Sydney harbour, and is easily viewable from Circular Quay and various other points such as Sydney Harbour Bridge. Its prominent yet also isolated location meant it was used during Sydney’s early years as a place to send convicts as punishment, and then as a location to hang their bodies as an example and deterrent to any potential would-be law breakers. Following this use, it then became a fort after the government became concerned of foreign attack to the Port of Sydney, consequently these days you can visit it and see the gun emplacements, the museum or to even to host events.

Longshot of Fort Denison

View from Sydney Harbour Bridge, with tiny Fort Denison in the middle of the bay

The Rum Hospital

The Rum Hospital was an attempt by Governor Macquarie to establish Sydney’s first permanent hospital and improve the provision of medical services in the colony. However, plans to build the hospital were finalised but provisions for building it were not granted by the British Government. Macquarie’s plan was then to offer a group of businessmen the opportunity to provide the resources to build the hospital in exchange for the sole rights to import rum to sell within the colony. The hospital was constructed poorly and needed much alterations and adjustments to sort out many problems. It is a two storied pillared building that remains atmospheric nestled within the heart of Sydney, and is only a short walk from Circular Quay.

Customs House / Town Hall

Built towards the end of the 19th century, the Sydney Town Hall was constructed to give Sydney an impressive building with a tower to rival the House of Parliament’s Big Ben. As well as its governmental duties, it has served as a concert hall, and is a popular pedestrian and tourist gathering point, as many come to admire the building’s façade and clock tower.  The Grand Organ is known as one of the largest and finest in the world, and has been restored to fix the issues created by its notable age. The building is decorated with some interesting features, such as the Australian coat of arms which is supported by a Kangaroo and an Emu, allegedly because neither animal can walk backwards (even though they can) and therefore a sign of Australia’s progress and drive forwards.

Author Bio: Matt explored Australia on a recent backpacking trip with the help of a campervan and a nifty sat nav. Having exhausted himself on this, he is looking for some luxury family holidays to get some much needed rest and relaxation.

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